Darren Carver-Balsiger’s review published on Letterboxd:
I saw this at Leeds International Film Festival 2018.
This review has no explicit plot spoilers, but discusses thematic spoilers. Read at your discretion.
Burning is a mystery with no solution. A film told backwards, with an ending that defines all else. Everything is a retroactive build-up. A film of red herrings because they matter as much as the answer, which is to say: not at all.
If there exists a perfect man - a man who's rich, young, handsome, a man who's charismatic, able to comfort any woman, able to be witty, able to show an interest in anything, and always able to have fun - if such a man exists, he will burn the ground he walks on. He will emasculate those around him. He will make the most thoughtful of people seem dull, he will make the kindest of men seem uncaring, he will make the most desperate of people feel like they've lost what little they have. Yet he will burn the ground with a smiling face, destroying others with a grin, a pure veneer that can't be hated.
People don't work. They make no sense. When they crowd around each other, saying a million contradictions, we never know where we can fit in. To interact is to turn yourself into dialogue, to reduce your identity to words, and that takes away the only thing you have. There's very few ways to gain trust, perhaps only sex and friendship are the safest ways to share your identity. So, when you're unable to see past your own worldview (can't spot the fire started within) and if you can't realise that there isn't always a universal truth, things are going to burn. The happiest moments in your life, or the happiest moments you see in someone else's (dancing till they drop), always mean less than the few bad words that stick with you. Negativity will trump positivity everyday. Unless you're the perfect man. In which case, you can witness the weak leave the world ablaze.
Lee Chang-dong is always interested in social problems. Within the context of Burning, we get allusions to unemployment, female roles in society, and wealth disparity. This is a world created to serve those who are happy. Those who don't need to work, who don't need to struggle, who have everything they need. When perfection is measured on those terms, there's a lot of perfect men out there. Which means there's a lot of fires that will need to be extinguished before we ever move forward.
With a growling score and a slow naturalism, Burning shows us an inevitable catastrophe. Masculinity is threatened, defended, then burned. There is no redemption, just a callous hatred bred from jealousy and weakness. There's a thousand metaphorical fires in Burning and the only literal one is the quickest to flicker out.