Hungkat’s review published on Letterboxd:
“People’s memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive.” (Haruki Murakami)
An invisible tangerine is peeled, the key is to forget that it's not there. Stories are told through nebulous smoke. A naked body’s incinerated with orange hues fuming the air, and the echoes of bated breaths have remained deep in the bones. Burning revolves around a poor country boy Lee Jong-su, who claimed to be a writer yet not once do we ever see him write. Maybe claiming for a lack of inspiration is a passable excuse but really, to him, the world is an entangled mess or more like a great enigma that could never fit within his personal peace of mind. One day he accidentally meets a small town girl who is also his childhood friend, Hae-mi. As the two go drinking together, Hae-mi expresses that she’ll be traveling to Africa for a short while so she asks him to help taking care of her cat.
When Hae-mi returns, she’s not alone but accompanied by a handsome, deeply mysterious Ben who comes from an inexplicably wealthy place. Looking at Ben, we see a neatly-dressed, well-spoken, well-to-do man living in a lavishly decorated house with a snazzy Porsche in the garage. On the other hand, Jong-su lives alone in a dilapidated house on the outskirts of the city. Poor people like Jong-su are cornered and pushed into the dark like garbage dumps. In contrast, well-off folks like Ben got everything they want, spacious kitchen overflowing with ambient lighting and Western music. Jong-su and Hae-mi have to put on the work to pay off their debts, while Ben simply plays – for his amusement, burning down greenhouses as a form of entertainment, deriving satisfaction through the assertion of control as a way to relieve personal feelings. Ben is a puzzle piece shrouded by gloomy clouds. Not a single thing about this man is revealed besides his finely built veneer. At one point, Ben refers to himself as something very close to God in reference to the great meal that he cooks. He is the one with insurmountable amount of power to destroy and hold together the existence of greenhouses – which represents the lower class (Hae-mi) who has no voice in society, prone to be burned into non-existence and instantly disappear without a trace. There is a roaring bass at their core, but most importantly, jealousy’s triggered along with frustrations of class-divide. An urging hunger for freedom from poverty is explosive, given liberation’s cathartically burst into a slow, time-stood-still dance in dim twilight.
How come they talk about a well there but no one seems to remember it? Splat! Gone! You yell but nobody can hear you nor be able to find you. Hae-mi just like that, has fallen into the well. Blank pages flapping but not a single word is written, not a simple explanation is gathered. Obsessive desire is widened until his vision gets blurry. Is Hae-mi merely a flammable, plasticized object...a character in the psyche of a boy who poured kerosene, longing to escape his fate in a desperate search for a reason why? Is there really a tangerine, a cat, or does Ben/Hae-mi actually exist? Maybe they had all been illusions in the midst of the conflagration, bit-by-bit crumbled to the earth. Sweaty-palms set fire to the human soul, stripped bare. How bright does it get when something is lit up on the snowy ground – flickered but never faded. Lee Chang Dong has cooked a masterpiece that churns the soft folds of my mind.