Burning

Burning ★★★★

Burning, much like the works of Haruki Murakami, ambles through its first half with a hazy, dreamlike quality. Director Lee Chang-dong paints a portrait of loneliness and longing, but with a definite sense of foreboding. This presentiment begins during one of the first conversations of the movie, when Jeon Jong-seo’s Shin Hae-mi tells our main protagonist, Yoo Ah-in’s Lee Jong-su, that they knew each other when they were younger and he thought she was ugly back then. Shin Hae-mi has since changed her appearance through plastic surgery and now appears attractive and seductive in her cheerleader-esque costume. Shin Hae-mi proceeds to initiate an intimate relationship with the agreeable Lee Jong-su far too quickly to seem completely genuine, and it fills you with a sense of unease and trepidation. 

The ensuing events in Burning unfurl in a way that’s surreal and mystical. For example, in the same, early scene between our two main characters there is talk of the “Great Hunger”; an appetite to find true meaning and fulfillment in life, which the lead characters both seem to be missing and find they have in common; there’s a display of pantomime through which Shin Hae-mi explains that she can satiate any desire; an explanation of a strange dance linked to the African Bushmen of Kalahari; a wish from Shin Hae-mi to disappear as if she never existed; and a request of Lee Jong-su to feed a (possibly imaginary) cat while Shin Hae-mi travels to Africa. Needless to say, by the time Steven Yeun’s Ben shows up, we have already been alerted to the eerieness and bizarre direction this story will eventually take. 

The pacing of Burning is important. It allows the tension to build while exploring different narrative threads, all of which will impact our interpretation of the movie and its climax. Burning is certainly ambiguous but doesnt deploy that ambiguity cheaply. It earns it through the thorough development of each character and the exploration of themes such as class dynamics, consumerism, and the male ego. You’ll be thinking about this movie long after you’ve seen it. There were some truly memorable moments, but the single, tracking shot during the movies final scene was an incredible and a fitting conclusion.