Burning is a 2018 South Korean mystery/thriller directed by Chang-dong Lee. The film is based on the short story “Barn Burning” from author Haruki Murakami’s collection, The Elephant Vanishes. Ah-in Yoo, Jon-seo Jun, and Steven Yeun lead the cast of Burning.
Lee Jong-su (Yoo) bumps into an old neighbor and childhood friend of his while roaming the streets of Paju, South Korea. At first Jong-su does not recognize Shin Hae-mi (Jun), but she convinces him to have dinner with her anyway. While reconnecting, Hae-mi tells Jong-su she is going on a trip to Africa. She asks Jong-su to watch her cat while she is away.
Jong-su has been without a job since graduating from college. He is the caretaker of his family farm during his father’s absence due to legal affairs. Hae-mi brings Jong-su to her apartment to instruct him on how to feed the cat. The two have sex in her apartment, and Hae-mi departs on her trip to Africa a few days later.
When Hae-mi returns from her trip, she has a mysterious man with her. Ben (Yeun) was the only other South Korean she met on the trip. The three new friends go out for dinner. At dinner Hae-mi describes the beautiful African sunset to Jong-su. As the sunset, she wished that she could disappear just as the sun has. This brings Hae-mi to tears. Ben finds it funny when people cry because he has never felt what it is like to cry.
“Sometimes I burn down greenhouses. You can make it disappear as if it never existed.”
Ben is very well-off as seen by his luxury car and places he hangs out. He invites the couple over for dinner at his apartment. Jong-su is still uncomfortable with Ben, not trusting his intent with Hae-mi. Ben searches his apartment out of curiosity for the man he considers a modern Great Gatsby. In Ben’s bathroom he finds a number of women’s necklaces and bracelets.
“Why do we live? What is the significance of living? This kind of person is really hungry, they called the great hunger.”
Day’s later the trio join Ben’s friends for dinner. Hae-mi shows the group a dance she learned while in Africa. The group seems very amused by her dance, except Ben who lets out a deep yawn. Hae-mi and Ben visit Jong-su’s farm. The three bond over the peaceful nature of the land. Hae-mi strips and performs a dance in front of the sunset for Ben and Jong-su.
Jong-su reveals to Ben that he is in love with Hae-mi. Ben let’s Jong-su in on one of his secrets as well. He has a hobby of burning down greenhouses just to watch them burn. Ben is about ready to burn another, this time one very close to Jong-su. Jong-su asks Hae-mi why she strips so easy in front of men, and tells her that only whores do that. Hae-mi is upset by this statement and leaves with Ben. Day’s later Hae-mi goes missing without a trace.
What I Liked About Burning
Burning is one of the mostly beautifully shot films I have seen in recent memory. The cinematography by Kyung-pyo Hong is breathtaking, with each shot adding layers to the story. Burning uses shot composition to guide the story and allow audiences members to feel connected with what is taking place on screen.
The performances by the three leads in Burning provide depth, authenticity, and a real world feel to each of their characters. Yeun plays against type in this film, allowing the former The Walking Dead star to show the range he has as an actor. His performance allows the viewers to question any preconceived notions they may have, or develop, for his character. A mark of a truly fantastic performance.
“I guess he’s young and rich. He’s the Great Gatsby.”
In her her first credited film role, Jon-seo Jun shines as Hae-mi. She delivers a charm and vulnerability to to her character. Within the same scene she can go from playing the life of the party, to a distraught and broken individual. Jun provides a performance that would make you believe she is a seasoned performer.
Director Lee Chang-dong delivers a masterclass in film making. His version of a Hitchockian thriller warrants multiple viewings. The film makes you think you have all the answers, then Chang-dong changes the question. Burning constantly makes you think of the “what if” scenario. You are constantly questioning the reliability of the characters, as well as the film itself. Burning delivers in every aspect. It will leave audiences questioning the film, and wondering what it is that they saw.
With Burning based on a short story, the film takes many influences from literature. Not only is the main character an aspiring fiction writer, but the film uses the story structure of literature in the film. There is only one reliable narrator in the film and that is Jong-su. Even with him as the one we follow, the questions presented make us wonder if he truly is reliable. Burning also uses symbolism and metaphors throughout it’s 2.5 hour run-time.
As you can tell I have not included a section for what I thought could have been improved. I don’t think there was anything that needed improvement. Burning is a modern masterpiece. It is a shame that this film will not receive not only the acclaim, but the viewership, that it deserves. South Korea should be proud that this film was on the Oscar short list for Best Foreign Film. Although Burning was not nominated, it does not take away from the impact that it will leave on audiences. Burning is a slow burn that provides viewers with a sense of the uncertain. In many ways Burning is like a great book. You may never grasp the full artistry of the work, but the journey it takes you on will keep you asking for more.
Overall Score 5/5