Burning ★★★½

It took me a while to process this one, but I think ultimately, although I have an overall positive reaction to it, it suffers from feeling like something I've seen from so many Chinese directors. I know, Burning is directed by Lee Chang-Dong, a Korean, but the movie's approach to its primary theme of disoriented contemporary youth feels very similar to works on the same subject by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Jia Zhangke, and Tsai Ming-Liang. If we're to believe all of these artists, all Asian youth are dissatisfied, lost, and led astray to bad decisions by hard economic realities. They must all be so sad. Look how glum they are. They'll dance away in their clubs, but they can't hide the meaninglessness inside. Burning adds a glaring element of contrast between the working class youth and their posh neighbors, which works in its favor, adding a new angle to the malaise, and ultimately becoming a major point of focus for the rather sad sack protagonist Lee Jong-su. The final act of the movie is ostensibly in response to a mystery in the latter half, but it may as well also be stemming from class resentment, and it's a strong note to go out on.

I also have a problem with this movie's somewhat stubbornly outmoded characterization of its female lead. She's not only flighty and callous, her personal concerns and history are far overshadowed by those of her two male counterparts, and she ultimately serves as a plot fulcrum. Her primary memorable moment is a pot-fueled, dusk-lit topless dance; it may make for striking imagery, but I didn't see it serving any positive purpose.

The movie is otherwise engrossing, despite developing a mystery plot which any experienced cinephile knows won't be explicitly solved. These things are rather maddening to me, because I tend to stop caring about the story and just start looking at other things that are happening. But the illustration of the protagonist is at least interesting. He's a simple person who probably just bounced from daily task to daily task until he ran into Hae-mi. She gives him something to latch on to and drive for; and after the mystery begins, he continues to use her as the basis of his personal goals. It's interesting because it shows how such focus can be easily generated within individuals who probably have nothing else to strive for; and it brings out manifestations of this purpose, misguided though they may be. Stalking someone is a terrible idea -- and we don't even really know what he's hoping to achieve via the stalking -- but the idea is that he now stalks because it creates the act of fulfilling a goal. When everything in the world seems so messed up, people will hone in on something that might make some semblance of sense to them, even if it makes no sense to anyone else. Now this is starting to remind me of Taxi Driver. So this kind of thing has been done before, but it's an involving iteration.

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