It has been over a decade since the film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” an improbable stock character who exists primarily in service of brooding, unhappy young men. These characters are no longer so ubiquitous, and when they do appear, it is usually for a reason other than the male hero’s romantic triumph. The Korean slow-burn thriller Burning features a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, except her quirks and eccentricities are a springboard to explore masculinity at its most sinister. The three lead performances are marvels of subtlety and implication, leaving just enough room so that everyone who sees the film can come to their own conclusions.
Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in)—a young man in his early twenties—is walking down the streets of Seoul when a beautiful woman almost materializes out of thin air. She says they went to school together, and he does not recognize her because she had plastic surgery. His reactions are docile, even passive: Maybe he is stunned, or cannot believe his luck. They meet for a drink, and she gives him just enough attention so he is obsessed. Her name is Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), and she has this aloof sincerity—along with playful body language—that is catnip to young men like Jong-su. They have sex, almost like an afterthought, and she asks to him take care of her cat while she’s on holiday in Africa. He’s hooked, which is why he is so deflated when she returns with Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), who is more handsome, worldly, and sophisticated.
This film is the first in eight years from director Lee Chang-dong, and he uses a Haruki Murakami short story as his source material. Indeed, Burning has the hallmarks of Murakami’s work: brooding heroes, casual narcissism, references to Western literature. Lee also maintains Murakami’s aloof, borderline foreboding atmosphere. Many takes are long, with the characters obscured by the frame or occupying too much space. The staging of the characters says a lot about how they relate to each other, which is helpful since no one quite says what they are thinking. This all comes together in a lengthy dance sequence where Haemi moves along to a Miles Davis tune. She slinks through the frame, seemingly unaware of her effect on Ben and Jong-su, and their silent rivalry is where the film finds its suspense.
Burning is much more than just a love triangle. Social class is a key difference between all the characters: While Jong-su drives in a truck, Ben has a Porsche. Jong-su lives in the boonies, and Ben has a gorgeous condo in a quiet Seoul neighborhood. But what elevates this film into a thriller is the subtext of Yeun’s acting. It is a perfectly modulated performance, with such acute command of body language that Yeun is able to suggest Ben is a charmer and a psychopath—sometimes in the same instant. The film gets its title from a strange monologue where Ben explains how he likes to burn down greenhouses. What he says is a metaphor, but its meaning changes as the film continues. By the time something is aflame in the final shot, it is clear that the act of burning—not the destroyed object—is what gives it meaning.
In order to appreciate a film like this, you have to succumb to it. It is a long film, with protracted bouts of silence and only three characters. When the story finally develops the stakes of a thriller, there are no shouting matches or dramatic confrontations. More importantly, we always see things from Jong-su’s point of view, which makes Ben’s manipulations all the more frustrating. Jong-su has a strong idea of who Ben is, but his “evidence” is utterly circumstantial. All that misdirection and ambiguity leads to the final moments, recalling both Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith. Ben always seems open and friendly, but there is an edge to his affability, like a predator who cannot decide whether he’s amused or bored by its prey.
If Jong-su spends a lot of Burning worrying about Ben, he is hardly a passive participant in what happens. He has the entitlement of a Nice Guy, the sort of man who thinks he should get the girl because his love is more pure. In fact, the film suggests that Jong-su might have continued as an “incel” without Hae-mi’s intervention. Without many prospects or family, resentment is what finally radicalizes Jong-su. He is not a monster, exactly, but his ordinary qualities are what make his obsession and hatred all the more disturbing. Burning acknowledges the tension and insidious entitlement that has its roots in toxic masculinity. Since the film never force-feeds the audience, its conclusions are all the more alarming and inevitable.
Burning opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center Mosaic.