Burning ★★★

(Foreign language film)

Intricately weaves in its provocative soft-spoken themes into the framework of a Hitchcockian thriller, but ultimately gets bogged down by being overly long and frustratingly uneventful.

“I’m learning pantomime nowadays. Why are you learning such a thing? …. I’m just learning for fun. Look. I can eat an orange whenever I want to … You’re good, you have talent … This isn’t about talent. In fact, don’t imagine that the orange is here, but forget that the orange is not here. That’s all there is. The important thing is to really think that you want to eat it. Then your mouth will salivate, and it will be delicious.”

Coming into Burning, I had heard it started slow and got crazy during the second half. So I kept eagerly waiting for it to pick up, but I never thought it fully did and was instead a slow burn throughout.

Burning tells the story of a recent creative writing graduate named Jong-su who says he is planning to write a novel. But instead most of his time gets spent tending to his father’s farm and helping him resolve his legal issues, which have landed him in jail. One day while walking through town he comes across a woman named Hae-mi who says they are from the same area, but he does not recognize her. They end up going out for drinks and then hooking up. Meantime, she asks him if he will come by her apartment while she is on travel in Africa to take care of her cat.

He agrees take care of her cat in this very small apartment, but never ends up seeing it, just the evidence it leaves behind in the litter box. (Which is located under her bed ... icky). Things get a bit strange when she returns from the trip and asks Jong-su to pick her up from the airport, and then he sees she is accompanied by another Korean man named Ben played by Steven Yeun aka Glenn from 'The Walking Dead'. Glenn is very well off financially, but he does not say what he does for a living, only that it is fun. Jong-su finds him a bit odd and describes him as being like the Great Gatsby.

He continues to be invited to meet up with Hae-mi who is always accompanied by Ben. We come to notice that Hae-mi has some confidence issues since we hear that she had plastic surgery, plus she gets emotional and talks about wanting to disappear at sunset. She also seems to possibly have narcolepsy, and Jong-su criticizes her for being so open with taking off her clothes in front of him and Ben. But when he makes that comment, he never anticipated that would be the last time he would see her.

One of my favorite moments takes place not long before this, when we hear this gorgeous jazzy trumpet music with a shot of Hae-mi dancing. The shot shows her as a silhouette nearby a Korean flag along with this gorgeous skyline at dusk, which is filled with this blue/purple color like in the film’s poster.


One of the best parts for me is when Ben is hanging out with Jong-su, and says that his hobby is to burn down old greenhouses. This is followed by a stunningly visual dream sequence of what I recall being a young Jong-su watching a greenhouse burn. Ben tells him that next greenhouse to go up in flames would be nearby his house, so he becomes obsessed with checking up on each of them to see which one got targeted. He never ends up finding one that got burnt, and Ben later tells him it is hard to see things that are so close to you. Also he becomes worried about being unable to contact Hae-mi, since the last time she called him he heard a bunch of noise in the background before the call dropped.

Jong-su confronts Ben who tells him that he has not seen Hae-mi, and doubts that she went on travel since she has no money. Jong-su continues to follow Ben around town to gather more clues, and discovers Hae-mi's typically messy apartment has been cleaned, her pink watch is in Ben's bathroom drawer, and Ben's new cat answers to Hae-mi's mysterious cat's name. So there is a bit up a paranoid thriller aspect going on here with how Jong-su stalks Ben, but it is pretty subtle. Then it is not until the very last scene when Jong-su gets sick of this game, and asks Ben to meet up with him in the countryside and proceeds to stab him to death, and then shoves Ben and his own clothes into Ben's Porsche, and then sets it on fire.

So thinking back on Burning, there were a couple of interesting themes at play that drive the story. First, there is the theme of 'what you imagine' versus 'reality'. This cleverly gets set up in a scene toward the beginning when Hae-mi performs a pantomime with an imaginary orange. It is continued with her mysterious cat, and then later with her actual disappearance. There is also an interesting twist with how before she vanishes she recalls a story where she fell into a well as a kid. But no one in the area recalls a well being where she lived except Jong-su's mother, who makes an appearance for the first time since abandoning him and his father when he was young.

The other theme has to do with the characters' position within their social class system. Jong-su lives in a farmhouse, and we see how being in the upper class feel of Hae-mi's apartment, which has a great view of the city and towers makes want to masturbate. Also Jong-su keeps being asked what his novel will be about, but he says he doesn't know since he does not understand the world. But it does appear that he is starting to write something before the climax.

At one point we hear during a newscast that the rate of unemployment in Korea is up. And then we see how Ben is this wealthy guy that appears not to work, compared to Jong-su who is the poor son of a farmer, that also does not appear to want to work. The title Burning plays into this aspect, because we hear how Jong-su's father had him burn his mother's clothes in order to wipe her from their memory. Then at the end, we see how Jong-su not only burns Ben's body to wipe him from his memory, but also his own clothes in order to get a fresh start. Thinking about it more, Jong-su was likely so obsessive about the greenhouses because he may have seen them as a symbol of where he came from, and he was threatened by Ben as a member of the upper class trying to burn that away.

So while there were some complex and mysterious elements at play in Burning, I was very underwhelmed by the pay off mostly due to the 2+ hours that was spent building it all up.

Thanks for reading.
Happy Movie watching …. Cheers!

Block or Report

Justin liked these reviews