Shea Gallagher’s review published on Letterboxd:
“What you do isn't make yourself believe that there ARE tangerines there. You forget that the tangerines are NOT there. That's all."
The above quote comes from Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’, upon which Lee Chang-dong’s film Burning is based. It might seem cryptic or even nonsensical, but I believe it captures the central questions of the film quite well. How can we be sure of what’s in front of us? Or what’s not in front of us? How much of what we think we see is only in our minds? Not only is the main protagonist of Burning repeatedly faced with these questions, but so is the audience. This state of fluctuating uncertainty is one of the many rewarding elements of Burning, a modern Korean noir that oozes atmosphere from every frame – if you’re a fan of murder mysteries and love triangles, this is the film for you. (Though it may not necessarily contain either of those things…)
To say much about the plot (which itself is fairly thin, but packed with tiny details) would be to ruin the surprises this film throws at you. The setup is simple: a young man, Jong-su, bumps into a young woman from his past named Hae-mi. She asks him to look after her cat while she is away on holiday, finding herself. Jong-su obliges and spends a couple of weeks visiting her apartment, attending to a cat he never actually sees. Hae-mi returns with someone she’s met on her travels – a handsome yet aloof young guy by the name of Ben – which introduces some tension and sets the events of the films in careful, deliberate motion.
The performances from the three leads are extremely layered, so much so that you will replay moments in your head afterwards and read them an entirely different way. Yoo Ah-in, something of a megastar over in South Korea, lends a fascinating arc to the character of Jong-su, starting out as a passive and reserved audience surrogate but gradually becoming something of an unreliable narrator as he is entangled in the mystery. Hae-mi walks a murky line between enigmatic and naïve, thanks to a truly impressive performance from first-time actress Jeon Jong-seo, whom expresses a great deal through her physicality. But the scene-stealer is Steven Yeun (of The Walking Dead fame) as Ben, whose simultaneously charismatic and chilling demeanour make him compelling and almost impossible to read.
If you’re familiar with the work of Haruki Murakami, you’ll know that the story will feature vanishing objects, mysterious discoveries, ominous dreams, cryptic dialogue, Miles Davis needle-drops, etc. Director Lee Chang-dong masterfully teases out aspects of the short story and magnifies them, delving deeply into the intricate character dynamics and underlying themes of class and social alienation. It’s the many minor details which occupy the otherwise empty spaces of the film that draw you in to the rich current of emotions just beneath the surface; as addressed by the introductory quote, emphasis is placed every bit as much on what isn’t on screen as what is – things appear, disappear, and turn out to maybe never have been there in the first place.
The beauty of Burning lies in its ambiguity, and how it gives you a satisfying conclusion but leaves you second-guessing everything you’ve just witnessed. This film is a psychological thriller of the highest degree, one that keeps you on your toes, feeding you plenty of information and withholding even more.