In 2019, we weren’t exactly hurting for ‘topical’ or ‘timely’ films. From January – with The Favourite’s vision of a Britain ruled by sad and grotesque schemers – to December – with Motherless Brooklyn’s look at the foundational racism of New York real estate – scripts matched headlines. Yet, just because something is obviously topical doesn’t make it truly “of its time”. The Favourite would have felt just as relevant in Thatcher’s Britain, and Donald Trump is hardly the first bigoted New York powerbroker. What separates Lee Chang-dong’s Burning from the pack, more so even than its thrilling mystery and gut-wrenching finale, is that it truly is of its time, a tale that revolves around the kind of loneliness that is exclusive to the 21st century.
Loneliness haunts every step of Burning. Its initial quasi-romance between Jong-su and Hae-mi is sparked not by a real chemistry – in their very first conversation, Hae-mi recalls how Jong-su used to call her ugly in school – but a desperate grasp in the dark for some sort of connection. Both of them live isolated lives, Hae-mi in a tiny flat with a disappearing cat, and Jong-su out of the city on a small farm that catches North Korean propaganda broadcasts. Lee shows throughout that the ‘always connected’ nature of the new, social media-based world doesn’t help this isolation at all, and in fact contributes to it, a modern paradox that many films are neither willing nor intelligent enough to handle outside of throwaway lines.
Lee’s Seoul is remarkably empty, silent streets devoid of people, crafting an eerie atmosphere that perfectly suits Jong-su’s paranoia after Hae-mi seemingly disappears into thin air midway through the story. It’s in this disappearance that Lee folds another of the ever-connected world’s worst aspects – inescapable male entitlement – into his story, as Jong-su and the suavely unnerving Ben play a game of cat and mouse that is largely about possession of Hae-mi.
Ambiguity is the order of the day in Burning. We see the world through Jong-su’s eyes, so his notion that Ben has killed Hae-mi – backed up by, to be fair, a litany of evidence, from Hae-mi’s cat being at Ben’s apartment to Steven Yeun’s placidly murderous performance – is a compelling one, but there’s also every chance that she has simply ghosted Jong-su. In their last interaction, he calls her a ‘whore’, so it would be no surprise if she had just stopped picking up his calls.
This ambiguity is what makes Burning so endlessly fascinating – even at 150 minutes, you almost wish it was longer just so you had more time to ponder its questions, the answers to which snap into sharp focus in the brutal ending. Jong-su takes Ben to an isolated spot and stabs him to death, and in a magnificent piece of acting by Yeun, you feel that you see Ben realise why he’s dying. Yet, even this moment keeps some queries alive, and Jong-su’s isolation plays a major role in that. University of Chicago studies have shown that extended periods of loneliness – which, prior to industrial society, would have likely been a death sentence – activate the self-preservation instincts in the brain.
Jong-su’s loss of his one reliable human connection in Hae-mi (he also sees his father, but only as a witness in his court sessions) pushes him over the edge of rationality, and it’s very telling that his search for Hae-mi also includes a minor quest to discover whether or not there was ever a well in his hometown. Everyone he asks, from a slightly bewildered neighbour to his absent, screen-obsessed mother, has a different answer, masterfully setting a mood of unreality.
There is no shared reality between each character in Burning, another technique that firmly positions it as a truly 21st Century film. As well as contributing to our unique loneliness crisis, social media has rendered our present moment utterly devoid of universally accepted facts, and it’s this deeply disturbing, uncanny feeling that Burning expertly uses to its advantage. Though the world Lee creates is thoroughly believable, it also seems at any moment like anything could happen, the empty streets and lonely houses hiding countless secrets. There’s a profound sadness at the heart of Burning, even on the part of the possibly psychopathic Ben, its study of people unable to connect with the world movingly written and perfectly acted.
The only other film of 2019 to really reckon with the insanity of our current decade was Vox Lux, but even that (completely brilliant) film had to put its message across by overtly being about the 21st Century USA, the story of American pop-star Celeste mirroring that of her home nation. Burning is a quintessential 21st Century story without being solely defined by that fact, a masterpiece of atmosphere, mystery, and hostility that is the perfect reflection of our ridiculous, yet terrifying, world.