Burning is a very long, glacially paced, but weirdly compelling Korean film from director Chang-dong Lee that defies easy categorisation. It begins as a quirky love story, evolves into a psychological drama and then becomes something of a low-key, oddly nightmarish thriller. Those with an aversion to ambiguity would do well to steer clear, but those with an interest in deep-cut serious cinema will find much of interest.
Based on the short story Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami, the film begins amiably enough with shy, lonely wannabe writer Jong-su (Ah-in yoo) meeting outgoing, free-spirited Haemi (Jong-seo Jun) when he wins a raffle in a shop. She presents him with his prize – a garish pink watch that she suggests he give to his girlfriend. When he tells her he doesn’t have one, a brief but quirky courtship ensues, and soon they’re having sex at her cramped apartment. Jong-su clearly can’t believe his luck and is utterly smitten.
Shortly afterwards, Haemi informs Jong-su that she is going on a trip to Africa. She asks him to feed her rather shy cat whilst she is away. Jong-su has never seen her cat, but leaves food out nonetheless, and notices that the litter tray has been used. These details are important later in the story for reasons I won’t get into here.
Whilst Haemi is away, Jong-su desperately misses her. However, when she returns, she has a new, more confident and affluent boyfriend in tow, Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong-su is understandably put out, but says nothing, and becomes something of an awkward third wheel as he is invited to meals, parties and so on.
To say too much more would spoil things, suffice to say things get stranger and stranger. The film has the pace of a snail, but it is never boring; delving into themes of social inequality and class divisions, destructive male envy, sexual longing and paranoia. Performances and direction are excellent, and whilst I should add a warning for sexual content and one scene of strong violence for those who appreciate such things, none of it seemed gratuitous to me.
I’d also like to add a special mention for cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong, whose rich, atmospheric compositions – for example one shot at dusk that lingers outside in the disappearing sunlight whilst Haemi dances topless – brilliantly underscore the melancholy yearning and sinister unease simmering beneath the surface of this multi textured gem. The final shot – too good to spoil here – is also nothing less than masterful.
In summary, Burning isn’t for everyone. Some will dismiss it as a shaggy dog tale, but once seen this haunting and unsettling film can’t be forgotten.