Ryan’s review published on Letterboxd:
Burning is the latest film by Korean writer and director Lee Chang-dong. Coming out of Cannes earlier this year it received wide spread critical acclaim. Thankfully the praise and hype isn't unfounded.The film is mesmerising and so beautifully shot that it commands and your attention the full length of its extensive two-and-a-half hour running time.
Burning a slight departure from Lee Chang-dong's more conventionally plotted earlier work. The film attempts to make sense of that frustration within a strikingly unconventional thriller format, but it shares a common trait in is storytelling which tend to begin in one place and catapult into new directions as his characters’ obsessions deepen.
For the most part Burning sets itself up as a story focusing on its three characters Jong-soo (Yoo Ah-in), Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) and Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong-soo a unemployed college graduate with aspiration of being a fictional writer. Hae-mi is youthful and charming childhood friend of Jong-soo that he reconnects with. Ben is suave, rich and infuriatingly polished. Jong-soo and Ben are nearly complete opposites with the only common factor between them being their obsession of Hae-mi. Their type of love triangle forms the narrative for most of the second act before eventually becomes a fascinating psychological thriller once Ben confesses his cathartic obsession to Jong-soo: a secret hobby of burning plastic greenhouses.
The film is beautifully shot giving it a magnificent almost dreamlike quality to it. One particularly interesting moment is when Hae-mi strips her cloths off and dances in silhouette to the setting sun while Miles Davis plays over the soundtrack. Both men's eyes are fixed on her during this scene, the audience too. With the film being told through the perspective of Jong-soo the camera fixed on her displays his growing fixation.
Always shifting gears the moment you think you’ve figured everything out. It's a slow burn tale of alienation and obsession. The degree to which Burning succeeds will depend largely on your ability to identify with the unspoken but strongly conveyed sense of jealousy and frustration its lower-class protagonist feels, coupled with a need to impose some sense of order on events beyond our control.
The entire film is meticulously crafted with a level of ambiguity. It encourages certain assumptions that neither the characters nor the audience can ever fully verify. This can result in it disappointingly closed off at first. Although the more time you give it to breathe(which Lee Chang-dong does with its deliberate almost calming pacing), the longer you can let it work its way through your mind, the greater the rewards will be.
Without delving further into the narrative or plot I will say the film does have a slightly upsetting ending. Not because the ending is bad or anything, but rather that the film provides a catharsis for one character that offers audiences no such release. The film is sure to frustrate audiences who expect something more concrete from their movies. If on the other hand you want a poetic romance mystery then Burning is the right film for you.