Why mesmerising mystery film Burning is an Obama favourite

Lee Chang-dong's adaptation of a Haruki Murakami story explores an enigmatic relationship on the border of North Korea. 

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In Lee Chang-Dong’s haunting and mysterious film Burning, aspiring young writer Jong-su (played by Yoo Ah-in) is drawn into the orbit of a former classmate Hae-mi (played by Jeon Jong-seo), whose life seems impossibly adventurous and interesting to him. They have history, although exactly what type of history proves the first of many of the film’s surprises, which explode like mines underfoot as Burning proceeds.  

Hae-mi persuades Jong-su to care for her severely autistic cat, Boil, while she’s away in Africa. The stage appears set for a romance to blossom between them when she returns. But Hae-mi, ever the enigma, brings with her Ben (played by Steven Yeun), a slick and smarmy man-about-town with all the surplus wealth and confidence that Jong-su lacks. A strange dynamic develops between the three that is too amorphous to be called a love triangle. Ben’s game remains unclear. As Jong-su and Hae-mi fall under his spell, he seems to have the power. But what does he want?

Lee and screenwriter Oh Jung-mi adapted the picture from Barn Burning, a short story by Haruki Murakami that Lee said “alluded to the world that we live in today – the mysterious world in which we sense that something is wrong, but cannot quite put a finger on what it is.” This uncanny feeling is preserved in Burning, where details – the camera angle, the length of a shot, or a discordant note in the soundtrack – feel slightly off.

Protagonist Jong-su lives near the border town of Paju, so close to North Korea that he can hear the propaganda broadcasts. The film is marked throughout by a ghostly sense of another world breaking through into his, at points even crying out for help. In an interview with Film Comment, Lee said he chose this location because “it says something about a contemporary mindset… the conflict between the South and the North is always in the subconscious for Koreans.”

Burning has received mainstream endorsement, making onto Barack Obama’s Best of 2018 list. Like any subjective medley of cultural highlights written for the public eye, it’s a fascinating read. Among Obama’s film choices are mainstream movies with a radical edge (Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman), understated gems that will have passed many people by (If Beale Street Could Talk, Leave No Trace, The Rider), and sharp satire (The Death of Stalin). He flaunted populist credentials by selecting some Netflix releases, but then – surprise! – only arty ones: Annihilation, Roma. His tastes are eclectic, juxtaposing indie comedy Support the Girls with Japanese Palme d’Or-winning drama Shoplifters.

But Burning is probably Obama’s most left-field choice. As I watched the film, I couldn’t help imagining Obama’s reactions as he watched Burning. Did he enjoy the little dig at Donald Trump, glimpsed briefly on a television screen while Jong-su urinates in the background? Did the references to the crippling debt that ensnares several characters cause him to reflect on his own soft-soaping of Wall Street? Or did he just nod along, like normal audience members who have played no significant part in world events? There’s always the sneaking suspicion – entirely unfounded, I’m sure – that Obama’s best-of lists are compiled by a team of advisers working from the feedback of focus groups.

You know the sort of thing: “Would you be (a) Highly impressed (b) Mildly impressed (c) Entirely nonplussed or (d) Frankly nauseated by the idea of former president Barack Obama recommending the latest film by Lee Chang-Dong?”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.