Burning (2018) by Lee Chang-dong
Review by Zach Dennis
This movie is so frustrating as I want to dig deep into it, but that shatters the facade!
Burning, which marks writer/director Lee Chang-dong’s return to movies after an eight year absence, is so fickle and unassuming that — for me at least — its mastery passed over me for the following hours after watching it. Coming from a Haruki Murakami short story titled “Barn Burning,” the story follows Lee Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo), who is delivering a package when he chances upon Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), a friend and neighbor from his past who he fails to initially recognize. The two go out for drinks later and Hae-mi asks Jong-su if he’ll watch her cat while she’s out of the country on a trip to Africa.
Smitten with finding his friend, who he immediately becomes attracted to, he agrees and the two end up sleeping together on the day Jong-su comes by to learn about his duties.
Time passes — all the while without Jong-su actually seeing her cat while watching it — and Hae-mi returns on the arm of the devilishly suave and charming Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong-su is quickly suspicious of Ben, who feels like the embodiment of wealth and privilege, both in the way he speaks of life (“I don’t work, I play.”) and his mellow, satisfied demeanor towards everything.
Yeun is exceptional, playing Ben with echoes of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and Danny Ocean in Ocean’s 11. Nothing tangibly says that something is off about him, but his performance enforces Jong-su’s anxiety and distrust of his relationship with Hae-mi.
The beauty of Burning is in its subtlety. It would be difficult to say it unravels in a Hitchcockian-sense as the cues feel even more minimal than one would expect but the underpinning flame elevating the plot feels almost opaque and non-existent until the film’s final moments.
In a Q&A following the film, Lee Chang-dong said that the current culture inspired him to take Murakami’s story and reconfigure the plot to create a longer narrative, and I can see why modern life would influence Jong-su’s journey.
Overall, Jong-su is an incredibly unassuming and absent-minded character. A lack of recognition on the space around him culminates in a lack of understanding of the film’s third act events as he tries to make sense of where everything led him.
Digging further into this point would unbridle the majesty of this movie so I’ll leave it there, but there’s something incredible about the way Lee Chang-dong allows the narrative to slowly (and excuse this pun) burn for such a long runtime before ending in an almost ambitious and unexplainable way.
Like I said before, the film left me thinking for a long time and the more and more I did ruminate on how it worked, the more I came to greatly appreciate it. This is probably one that people might miss as it won’t be a flashy awards player, but it is in the conversation for best of the year and I hope more people see it so we can have a longer discussion on what it's saying.