Burning ★★★★½

Lee Chang-dong's "Burning" is a clever, carefully-paced film: a slow burn.

Haemi, the young woman at the centre of it all, shares with her two male companions that she doesn't understand metaphors, while she eats tripe stew and tells them a sad story. Later, she says she wishes she could just disappear, as though she never existed. Haemi has a "big hunger"; there's a void in her life she can't fill, not even with her elusive cat, "Boil."

Perhaps because of her desperation, Haemi becomes the central figure in a love triangle, replete with class struggles, involving two men: one from her past, Jongsu, who's still poor like Haemi, and another whom she meets on a short African holiday (the place where she learns about "little" and "big" hunger); a wealthy, enigmatic character named Ben.

One evening, after the three imbibe wine and smoke pot on Jongsu's farm, Jongsu, who is a wanna-be writer, ironically misses that Ben's "greenhouse" story (told in mixed tones of menace & nonchalance) is a metaphor for something sinister. Jongsu takes Ben's story literally and becomes obsessed with actual greenhouses. In the end, it's Haemi's insatiable "hunger" and Jongsu's lack of insight that send the threesome down a very dark path.

"Burning" operates on many levels: a rich character study, a compelling thriller, and an existential horror. Its wide-angle photography links each character to their place, so the settings become part of who they are, enriching the mise en scene with symbolism at every turn.

The film burns with a smouldering nihilism: some characters are living in its ashes; some are blithely oblivious to the flames; and some are just beginning to feel the burn of meaninglessness -- and the rage it ignites. In the end, there will be fire.

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