THE STORY – Jong-soo runs into Hae-mi, a girl who once lived in his neighborhood, and she asks him to watch her cat while she’s out of town. When she returns, she introduces him to Ben, a man she met on the trip. Ben proceeds to tell Jong-soo about his hobby.
THE CAST – Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun & Jeon Jong-seo
THE TEAM – Lee Chang-dong (Director/Writer) & Oh Jung-mi (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 148 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
Throughout Lee Chang-dong’s two-and-a-half-hour thriller, “Burning,” I was left wondering three things: 1. Who are these characters? 2. What does the title “Burning” represent? 3. Why did this film have to be two and a half hours long? I’m still wrestling with all of them long after the credits have rolled, and I believe that is “Burning’s” greatest asset. It gets under your skin, leaves its mark, and never goes away. Like a great novel (Funny, considering this is based on a short story), “Burning” presents enough detail, characterization and leaves us on a powerful note, strong enough to make the long journey worth it in the end. I’m still left wondering why it needed to be as long as it is, but I suppose some of that can be forgiven when the material is this rich and complex. I cannot say I enjoyed “Burning” while watching it due to its slow-burn pacing. However, its dark character study, central mystery, and thought-provoking questions have stayed with me, forever burned into my mind, and there is something to be commended in that for making such an impression.
Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a farmer who performs odd jobs in Paju, Korea. One day, he randomly bumps into Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a friend from his childhood who had a crush on him, but he never seemed to notice. The two have sex, and in Lee Jong-su’s mind, the two start to form a romantic relationship. However, upon returning from a trip to Africa, Hae-mi introduces Lee Jong-su to a new friend she met named Ben (“The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), a wealthy and successful yet mysterious man. When Jong-su observes that Hae-mi has taken a liking to Ben, he begins to grow suspicious and paranoid about the fascinating unknown man who has entered their lives.
What is burning in “Burning?” As Hae-mi states in the film, there is “little hunger,” and there is “great hunger.” Little hunger is when people are starving literally, whereas great hunger represents our desire to want to be fulfilled. Whether it’s his posture, lack of charisma, confidence, or lack of money, Jong-su has a longing to feel fulfilled in life. This is not only illustrated by his own qualities but by always showcasing his isolated life away from the city on his parent’s farm and his parent’s own misdeeds and failures. These faults and imperfections are projected onto the character of Ben, who, as stated in the film, is very much a modern-day version of the iconic literary character Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” He is beloved, successful, wealthy, confident, charismatic, and mysterious enough that we don’t know whether or not he is dangerous. Does Jong-su hate Ben with a burning, deep, fiery rage because he represents everything he is not? Or does he hate him because he suspects he’s more than he initially lets on?
The comparisons to the “The Great Gatsby” doesn’t stop with Ben, though, as there is even a visual comparison to be drawn when Jong-su sees in Hae-mi’s small single room apartment his own “green light” in the form of a small glimmer of sunlight which makes its way into the room for a brief moment every day. As the sun burns through this tiny space for a few fleeting moments, we must now ask if the title “Burning” represent the burning desires of Jong-su to be with Hae-mi? It’s never apparent to the viewer why Hae-mi initially takes a liking to Jong-su or why she still keeps him around after she gradually starts to show affection towards Ben. By the time the film ends, we’re actually left questioning everything we just saw for two and a half hours. Our protagonist has changed, and the growth is one that is surprising and very bleak. However, it’s shrouded in enough mystery to leave us with burning questions, which will likely never be answered.
Lee Jong-su gets asked multiple times by different characters what it is he does. He tells them he’s a writer, but he doesn’t know what to write. We know that he wants to write non-fiction, but beyond that, his story and its ending are left as an enigma not only to those around him and to us but to him as well. So when “Burning” reaches its inevitable conclusion, we know that the story Jong-su was writing all along was his own. It’s still steeped in non-fiction, for the humanistic qualities displayed by him are both genuine and reflective of the world we live in, as sad and depressing as that may be. But like any good story, we see our protagonist change for good or for worse, and in the process, hopefully, we too learn something about ourselves or humanity as a whole when (or if) we move past the damage that was left behind.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Stays with you long after the credits are over. Steve Yeun is endlessly charismatic and brilliant in his mysterious role.
THE BAD – Did this have to be two and a half hours long to tell this kind of a story?