“Burning” – Director Chang-dong Lee’s picture – which is South Korea’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar entry – is about haves and have-nots, belief and uncertainty, clear direction and lack of focus, urban abundance and rural frugality, and romance and unrequited love.
Lee Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) accounts for half of these opposing forces, as this young man – about 20 years-old – unfortunately, does not seem to have many answers in the game of life.
“To me, the world is a mystery,” Jong-su says.
He hopes to be a writer but does not truly devote any time to his craft. Instead, he fills his days with working random jobs and worrying about his father who might be sentenced to prison. Jong-su does not have a purpose or mentor to help blaze a path, but his perpetually hapless condition finds a sudden burst of optimism, when he crosses paths with an old friend Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon). She’s a beautiful free spirit, who could catch the eye of any man between the ages of 17 and 97, but – at this moment – she only gazes at him. Despite her eccentricities – or perhaps, because of them – he develops some clarity, but the film throws Jong-su a curve ball, when Ben (Steven Yeun) suddenly steps into Hae-mi’s world, and naturally, his as well.
With a runtime of 2 hours and 28 minutes, the picture consumes intriguing stretches to establish Jong-su’s current spheres by breathing in both Seoul and his small hometown of Paju. While in the city, he attempts to navigate within his comfort zones (which are only a few feet at a time), but exploring places like a casual restaurant, Hae-mi’s apartment and Ben’s condominium are brand new encounters with unexpected results.
For instance, Hae-mi asks him to feed her cat while she is out of the country, but – for some reason – he cannot find her pet in the tiny apartment. How can that be?
In another example, Ben always carries a confident swagger and a seemingly endless supply of money, but does not spend a moment actually working or explaining his chosen profession. He boasts that he never sheds tears and usually conducts every minute of his carefree days by shrugging his shoulders and smiling about his gilded existence. How is Ben so untroubled?
Also, while walking through his father’s home in Paju, Jong-su gazes at old photographs, but they don’t bring any resemblance to his dad’s present-day circumstances. How did his father’s solid yesterday result in such a makeshift-today?
These are mysteries.
Chang-dong Lee’s and writer Jungmi Oh’s winding narrative will hopefully provide resolutions; however, they purposely don’t make it easy for us. Jong-su sees Ben’s combined financial freedom, social network and confidence as an intimidating corner of this newly-formed love triangle and salvaging a relationship with Hae-mi feels increasingly unattainable. There is an unknown key to Jong-su’s eternal bliss, but he doesn’t immediately possess the tools to find it or know where to look.
Although we can, perhaps, dismiss Jong-su’s bewilderments as simple circumstances of the world’s order in 2018, the film takes a specific slow-moving, head-scratching turn that places our lead protagonist and us into a state of confusion, in which abandoned greenhouses are the explicit points of contention.
Like walking 20 minutes late into a class lecture, “Burning” stokes a burning need catch up to the filmmakers, and hence clinging to Jong-su is our only hope for answers, but remember, to him, the world is a mystery.
⭐⭐⭐1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image credits: CGV Arthouse; Trailer credits: Well Go USA Entertainment