This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Ethan’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
It's only a masterpiece when you finally understand what it's all about.
While I was watching Burning, I couldn't understand what was going on. About halfway through, Haemi disappears with only a mysterious phone call as her last message to Jong-su. Is it because he called her a slut? Is it something to do with Ben's seemingly layered mention of burning greenhouses, which could be a metaphor for murder(since Jong-su witnessed no burnt greenhouses around his area)? The film doesn't tell us. We're left wondering what happened, and are forced to look at it in Jong-su's perspective as he clumsily tries to piece together the clues. However, we're never really sure because nothing explicitly points to Ben being Haemi's murderer. And before we know it, Jong-su makes assumptions and jumps to a conclusion, and kills Ben right there and then.
This is the film's main focus. Not the mystery surrounding Haemi's disappearance, nor Jong-su's role as impromptu detective/force of retribution, but the mundane nature of Jong-su's everyday life which drives him to commit extreme acts. Haemi was the only remotely interesting thing to happen to him, and when she mysteriously cuts ties with both him and Ben, he's compelled to find out what happened. Paranoia and anxiousness combine into fury, and his mind finds a scapegoat to unload his rage at -- Ben, who may look vaguely suspicious but is actually(supposedly) innocent. To our untrustworthy protagonist's eyes, Ben is a possible killer and a prick as well(due to him being a rather self-satisfied rich man and Jong-su himself being of poor upbringings -- another subtle yet prevalent issue suggested in this movie). Without proper evidence, Jong-su's paranoia causes him to snap and commit murder, and this is what the film is showing us. That's why we, too, feel as if we're watching something weird and unfocused -- because that's the point. The film's using ambiguity to its advantage, and once you realize this, Burning becomes a masterpiece.
I'm so glad that Korean cinema is still capable of producing genuinely masterful movies such as this. 2018 has been a horrible year for Korean cinema, but thankfully Burning saves it from being a total hellhole of a year. Brought to life by the great Yoo Ah-In, Jeon Jong-seo and Steven Yeun, and featuring excellent visual and colorful touches by director Lee Chang-dong, this script sets a new bar for unnerving.