Dustin Nowak’s review published on Letterboxd:
This was my second watch, and I think this one bumps it up to my favorite movie of 2018. It’s between this and Sorry to Bother You. Either way, Steven Yeun wins. He’s so damn good in general, and here he gives an unforgettable performance as the riveting, mysterious, and insidious Ben. Burning is admittedly slow for the first 30 minutes or so, but once Yeun enters the picture, the entire remainder of the film is engrossing perfection. Before I get to the tl;dr, I’ll just note that if you’re looking for a film that comes to a clear conclusion, gives you any sort of catharsis, and ties things up with a bow, don’t watch this. But if you want a chilling thriller that’s going to stick with you for days after, slowly creep up on you, and gets you thinking about the inner mechanisms of multiple different characters and how and why things happened, you might love Burning.
I can’t begin to claim to know half of what Burning is ultimately saying. This film is as dense and metaphoric as it gets. This is just my interpretation of some of the elements that affected me the strongest.
I see a few elements from other recent favorite films of mine that are on display in Burning. Parasite does a great job commenting on class disparity, but Burning does the same, and just as adroitly, with the dichotomy between Jong-su and Ben. The second half, which mostly features Jong-su conducting a clumsy whodunnit (or didhedoit) investigation, and treating everything as a clue where there may not be any, reminds me of Under the Silver Lake and Andrew Garfield’s pointless delve into the world of conspiracy theories. The further Jong-su gets immersed into this mystery, the more we question whether or not he’s in the right, or whether or not there’s any purpose to what he’s doing at all.
I love how the first half of this is played more or less straight as a love triangle drama. Sure, there’s plenty of hints and foreshadowing early that tie into much of the darker mystery later, but even without said mystery, this could work as a heady drama/romance with class disparity at the fore--and the film is that. But the subsequent turn and fallout, I’d argue, is about how humanity can’t survive at certain extremes of the societal spectrum.
Jong-su and Ben are not just polar opposites, but different sides to the same coin. Jong-su comes from a relatively poor, working class family, hasn’t received much positive influence from either of his parents, and doesn’t have much opportunity available to him. His only apparent option is work as a struggle to keep his head up, not to progress in any way that would make life meaningful, which is what he seeks. He wants to become a writer, but has nothing to write about, as he only sees the world as pointless and incomprehensible. Ben, on the other hand, comes from a class of people who are so well off that the mere idea of thinking of a “meaning of life” seems crude and pointless and, more importantly, less interesting than the next glass of wine. This is shown by his group of wealthy friends acting disinterested, uncomfortable, and oblivious to Hae-mi’s dance at the restaurant. They simply can’t comprehend having a “great hunger,” nor what that term can mean to someone, literally and figuratively. This way of life has rendered his emotions so inert that he expresses some sociopathic traits, and even comments that he’s never once cried or truly felt sad. On the surface, these two couldn’t possibly be more different. Their opposite life experiences, however, have rendered them almost equally incompatible with the world at large, with what we’re supposed to believe is “normal.”
Hae-mi is the spark of humanity that allows the other two to coexist. She not only completes the love triangle, but she represents the humanity that isn’t compatible with either of the men’s extremes. Her longing for meaning in life, and her actively striving to attain it, is genuinely desirable for Jong-su, and “fun” and interesting for Ben. Jong-su sees her as a potential meaning in life--a hollow love, an escape that will save him from his dour existence--while Ben sees her as a fun sideshow before getting bored. Taking this back to the class metaphor, the lower class sees Hae-mi’s “normal” as something to achieve, whereas Ben’s wealthy class sees it as a fun, temporary, useful thing to extract value from before moving on. Neither of these guys deserve her. It’s worth saying here that I’m selling her importance in the film way short. She’s not a simple hollow female character that only exists to extend the film’s thematic motifs (lord knows there's an entire reading of the film you can do based on her reliability alone), but in my flawed reading it’s the easiest thing to connect to.
Around the halfway point of the film, this subtext on the ambiguity of life morphs into an actual ambiguous mystery on what happens to Hae-mi. Because of Ben’s suspicious actions and revelations, and also bolstered by Jong-su’s own unreliable worldview and resentment for his opposite, he begins investigating--very clumsily--his mysterious and antagonistic foil. In these moments, Yeun plays everything so perfectly ambiguous, so hard to get an exact handle on. For every piece of “gotcha” evidence that comes up, there’s also a perfectly plausible explanation once you detach yourself from Jong-su’s flawed and biased viewpoint. The truth of the mystery, like the world, is deeply cloudy and susceptible to preconceived biases based on one’s own experience, and we see this both first-hand with Jong-su, and also from everyone’s recollection of the possibility of a well existing in Hae-mi’s childhood yard. Everyone seems sure of their answer. Someone’s gotta be wrong.
I don’t have anywhere else to put this, so I’ll just say here that the cinematography from Hong Kyung-pyo is incredible. This is one of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever seen. The sunset dance will stick with me for a long time. Just looked, and this guy also did Parasite and The Wailing. Jesus, this dude is my favorite person.
Because the second half of the film plays much faster and easier at face-value, I have much less I feel like saying about it. I’ll just add that all of the metaphoric meat of the first half is just as important here if you want to look for it. But even if you only care about the direct mystery, this is still an A+ thriller from this standpoint alone. I think there’s just enough ambiguity to render you unconvinced by the end, but also enough evidence either way for you to be able to reach a decision if you’re so inclined. The question I’ve been left with after both watches is: From Jong-su’s perspective, does it matter if Ben did it? Either way, is he going to attain any sort of meaningful catharsis from his actions? Did he actually do it, or is this what he's writing about (remember, he finally picks up the pen and starts writing just prior to this scene)? I honestly don’t know. Simply thinking about it makes me realize I’ve missed a lot. Fuck. I need to watch this again.