This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Nihar’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Two men, one rich and lavish, the other, a poor writer, listless and downtrodden, share pot and engage in a conversation that slowly turns chilling. The rich, Ben (Yeun), discusses his fascination with burning down abandoned greenhouses just because he can. The writer, Lee Jong-Su, attempts to decipher if its all literal, metaphorical, symbolic, cathartic, or for pure mania. It's a movie about man's simmering anxiety, the resentment and ego that builds, the sexual frustration that develops, and how all that destroys you.
The film takes its time setting up the three main characters, and it juxtaposes their lives so exceedingly well. Jong-Su lives as a farmer on the outskirts of Seoul, performing odd jobs in an attempt to become a novelist. Hae-Mi, after going on a trip to Africa (whether she actually went is still a mystery), becomes disillusioned, bitter, fearful of her life. Finally, there's Ben, who throws dinner parties in his lavish apartment, drives a porsche, engages in small talk, and yawns when real emotion is discussed. It is an exceptional performance by Steven Yeun, one which requires the right amount of charisma, yet hiding his nihillistic nature and his nightmarish desires.
Shades of Fight Club in its depiction of masculinity, Burning is a medidative film, one which auteur Lee Chang-Dong never hurries, but lets its languid pace flow methodically. Somewhat indulgent at points, Burning takes its time, but the craft behind the film is undeniable. Not everything is what it seems, and Lee engages viewers through metaphor, surrealism, and symbolism. It is a difficult picture, one that becomes frustratingly difficult to decipher. However, Lee is smart to put the protagonist in the same situation as he struggles to figure out his place in the world, his relationship with Hae-Mi, and his increasingly dangerous desires.
The story moves along patiently, at times a tad too patient, but the charecters remain engrossing throughout. As the film reached its shocking ending, I wasn't affected by its brutality, rather perplexed by its actuality. Was Ben a version of Jong-Su that he wanted to be, rich, handsome, surrounded by women, one that he grew to despise, despite his situation? When he kills in the closing minutes, was it more than just murdering the man he hated, or was it also destroying the part of him that he feared he was becoming? How much of Ben is Jong-Su remains unclear, but it creates a fascinating mystery for the viewer. Lee Chang-Dong never answers these questions, but they will linger in your mind long after the credits roll.