A mystery isn’t just meant to be solved. In the right context, it can be a mirror to society. That’s one of the unique characteristics of Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning,” a modern-day thriller that centers on a 20-something South Korean, Jong Su (Yoo Ah-in), who falls for a former classmate, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), he hasn’t seen in years. Both are struggling to make ends meet and are immediately intoxicated by the wealthy lifestyle of a new acquaintance, Ben (Steven Yeun). And then Hae-mi vanishes without a trace leaving Lee perplexed and dazed.
According to Lee, good jobs are hard to find in Korea and the nation’s youth are often forced to take positions they never expected to. He adds, “Jong-su is one of many young people in Korea who feels anxious over his future but also lethargic and helpless. On the other hand, there are young people like Ben. He enjoys material wealth but is incredibly empty inside, the emptiness of the modern-day man who can do anything but also nothing at all. There are also young women like Hae-mi. She has no choice but to rely on credit card debt despite working hard as a narrator model on the streets, and yet she never ceases her search for the meaning of life.”
Yeun, best known for his role on “The Walking Dead,” was born in Korea but spent most of his adolescence in Michigan. This is the second time he’s been able to work with a Korean director after having appeared in Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja,” and he appreciates that Lee “made one for the kids.”
“To me, it conveys that feeling of loneliness and fear and confusion that I think a lot of people of my generation and younger feel as they look towards the future and they don't feel like there's something to guide them, per se,” Yeun says. “It looks chaotic, and I think it does a really purposeful and great job of trying to capture that feeling and emotion.”
He was also impressed with how patient Lee was on set and his willingness to revisit a scene if it wasn’t quite right. Yeun says the director would often ruminate over the dailies at night and then inform him he wanted to give it one more go the next day.
“It's pretty much the same feeling except now there's this beautiful flock of geese that flies by and reflects off the glass,” Yeun recalls. “And you're just like, ‘OK. You were just waiting for that.’ It's just this openness and patience to let the film kind of unfurl itself, and all the while having control over it. That's something that I don't know if I'll ever see [again].”
From the director’s perspective, Ben may be a serial killer or just a rich young man who is overly generous to those around him. After meeting him in person, Lee felt Yeun was the best actor who could portray the duality of the character.
“When I first met him for casting, he told me that he thinks emptiness is what lies at the bottom of Ben and that he is very familiar with the feeling because he’s experiencing it himself,” Lee says. “He talked about the existential crisis he experienced, having grown up in the U.S. as a second generation Korean American and suddenly gaining wealth and popularity after struggling as an Asian actor. I felt that he not only logically but also physically understood the character.”
Ben is the film’s most intoxicating question mark as Jong-su becomes increasingly obsessed over whether or not his rich acquaintance is responsible for Hae-mi’s disappearance. Lee recognizes that in most mystery thrillers the puzzle pieces come together in the end and the riddles are logically solved.
“Burning,” on the other hand, has a haunting ambiguity that the auteur felt was important to maintain throughout the picture. By keeping this uncertainty in the audience’s minds Lee hopes it will lead to questions about the world we’re living in and “the lives we lead.” He also hopes it further influences the narrative and cinematic medium itself.
“These days, more and more films present direct ‘experiences’ to the audience. The audience can vividly experience outer space, battles of WWII, and even murder scenes as if they are actually there,” Lee says. “I think this is partially an influence of video games. But while having such experiences, I wanted viewers to also put some ‘distance’ between themselves and the film.
“While watching ‘Burning’ the audience will have endless questions. Is Ben a serial killer or just a nice, generous rich friend? Where did the woman go? How close to the truth are what I see and believe? How close to the truths of life and the world is this narrative I watch and accept from the film? What is the narrative I desire? What really is cinema? I wanted these questions to become a new and interesting cinematic experience for the audience.”