How long before combustion takes place by Richard Jones

BurningA look at Burning (M)

Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong seems to be very keen on themes of class division and resentment. He’s noted for his works on these topics, particularly in his published works as he follows would-be writers on their quests for publication. Here Lee features his protagonist Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) who is forced to lead a hand-to-mouth existence in Seoul even though he actually lives in a lower-class rural setting.

While carrying some goods on his shoulder to a marketplace store, aspiring fiction writer Jong-su meets Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) who’s spruiking with two other girls outside a pharmacy business.

She introduces herself as a former classmate when they were both in secondary college although Jong-su can’t remember her.

Hae-mi puts the forgetfulness down to the fact she’s had plastic surgery before she temporarily disappears from Jong-su’s life when she takes a trip to Africa. They’re lovers by then and Jong-su is entrusted with looking after Hae-mi’s small apartment and her live-in cat called Boil. He never spots the elusive cat although he regularly leaves clean kitty litter and fresh food out for it.

On her return to Seoul Hae-mi introduces Jong-su to a new man in her life, a slightly older but much more sophisticated inner city resident, Ben (Steven Yeun).

Ben drives a Porsche, lives in a high-end apartment and is a regular globetrotter, but appears to have no need to hold down a job. Jong-su is immediately suspicious and seated in his battered old truck carries out some surveillance of his own, parked not far from Ben’s apartment complex. How Ben spends his time becomes clearer when all three are seated outside Jong-su’s run-down family farm, not far from the North Korean border.

They’re stoned from smoking pot when Ben, in response to Jong-su’s question about what he really does, suddenly blurts out: “I burn greenhouses.” What on earth does this mean? Has Ben brought flammable liquids up to the border area to ruin the burgeoning plants of local farmers? It certainly supplies the movie’s title and becomes the turning point in Lee Chang-dong’s long movie as soon  afterwards Hae-mi goes missing.

The reconnaissance and surveillance increases with the truck parked regularly outside the apartments before Jong-su follows Ben’s Porsche one day up a twisting, turning rural dirt road to a large lake. He’s not spotted but watches as Ben stands motionless by the lake shore gazing out over the water.

The scenes which lead to the climax sees Jong-su wandering around the parking lot in Ben’s apartment building when he suddenly spots a cat. Calling out “Boil, boil come here” he finally entices the cat into his arms. Virtually straightaway a suspicious Ben rocks up in the car park to ask what he’s doing and they both go upstairs to rejoin Ben’s dinner guests.

It’s in the apartment’s washroom drawer where Jong-su finds what he’s been looking for all along, setting the scene for the final, dramatic closing scenes.

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