The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series delves into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy cinematic moment from 2018. Next up is Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. (Read our previous entries here.)
“My father has an anger disorder. He has rage bottled up inside of him. It goes off like a bomb. Once it goes off, everything is destroyed.” So begins a confession of sorts from Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an introverted, pent-up writer living on his father’s farm, trying vainly to write. It’s a confession he makes to the poised, handsome Ben (Steven Yeun), an enigmatic businessman who’s dating Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), the girl Jong-su has a lingering crush on. And it’s quickly followed by a much stranger revelation from Ben, one that’s at the center (literally and figuratively) of Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s woozy, beguiling mystery thriller.
In talking about his now-imprisoned father’s nasty temper, Jong-su recalls the day his mother abandoned the family, fleeing her abusive husband. “I burned all her clothes,” Jong-su says, laughing. “Sometimes I burn down greenhouses,” Ben replies, looking absentmindedly into the horizon. “It’s a crime, so to speak.” The two of them are sitting on a porch, stoned, and Hae-mi, the joint object of their affection, is sleeping in the house behind them. Jong-su’s memory suggests a lifetime of buried anger and deep-seated issues planted by his parents’ relationship, things the viewer might have guessed already. Ben’s admission is far, far more inscrutable.