You probably missed Burning when it came out in the United States last fall. You could hardly be blamed for that. Between a limited release and a contentious, unpredictable awards season that unjustly cut this Korean film from the crop early on, I missed out on Burning, too.
What luck, then, that this brilliant and practically indescribable movie is now widely available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Directed by Lee Chang-dong and co-written by Lee and Oh Jung-mi, Burning is one of the rare releases that rightly contains very few special features — just one short featurette on the film’s trio of characters, along with a collection of trailers — because all one truly needs from this release is the movie itself. Deep dives into the filmmaking, character work and story (based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami, and loosely connected to another short story of the same name by William Faulkner) would only diminish the ambiguous power of Burning.
It’s a film that speaks for itself without answering any of your questions. It’s a film that mutates with repeat viewings, and mutates further when certain scenes, lines and moments come back to haunt you long after you’ve watched it. It’s a film that’s hard to shake.
Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a familiar character across cultures — a young, driftless writer with no life, nothing to write about, and issues buried as deep as they can go. Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), the enigmatic girl from down the street where he grew up in rural South Korea that he happens to run into in Seoul, is familiar too, but at the same time … not. She’s too melancholy to be a manic pixie dream girl, too full of emptiness and the “Great Hunger” for life’s meaning to be the kind of girl to inspire Jong-su’s supposed artistry.
Very quickly, Jong-su becomes obsessed with Hae-mi (and her cat, which may or may not exist), his expression never changing when he looks at her, face completely blank as he mistakes that obsession for love. Even he can’t quite convince himself that the story he is enacting with Hae-mi is a love story, and not just because halfway through a rival for her attention — just her attention, not her affection, because with Hae-mi there is no such thing — intrudes upon the scene.
Ben, played to perfection by Steven Yeun, is a mystery all his own. Jong-su calls him one of South Korea’s many Gatsbys — independently wealthy young men who do not work but “play,” who collect the experiences and emotions of others like dolls (or bracelets). Ben smiles when Hae-mi cries as she describes a sunset that left her feeling eviscerated and bereft in Kenya, because his entire life he has never cried. Ben, like Jong-su and yet completely unlike him, doesn’t seem to feel anything at all.
At first, it seems as if the only quality that unites these three characters is the existential emptiness they feel, but as the movie unfolds, the truth becomes apparent, and much more sinister. Hae-mi is really the only one who feels empty and seeks to fill that emptiness; Jong-su and Ben, however, contain something more dangerous: rage. It’s the rage of a generation, as Chang-dong has said in many interviews — the kind of rage that lies dormant, barely simmering but still deeply felt, until it finds an outlet. For Ben, that outlet is burning down rural greenhouses (or so he says; as with almost everything in this film, spoken facts are opaque). But Jong-su has no outlet.
Which is more dangerous, victimless arson by a privileged cut-out of a human being or the creeping realization that you are not the hero of any story, let alone your own? Burning does not answer this question; it leaves it to the viewer to decide. The absence of answers, of Hae-mi’s cat, and eventually of Hae-mi herself creates a void that Jong-su willfully jumps into, and us with him. Even then, it’s not so much of a shock when we realize that his “Great Hunger” is small and trivial compared to Hae-mi’s. It is, however, a shock to realize how brutal a weapon something so small and trivial can be.
Burning is a rarity. A deeply philosophical film that is never pedantic. A mystery with no resolution. A quietly scathing indictment of toxic masculinity and entitlement. A perfect character study that leaves you with more questions about those characters than answers. Nothing and no one in Burning is what it seems, and I can think of no better reason to visit and revisit it than that.
Some movies change as time passes and you come back to them a slightly different person than when you first saw them. Burning changes with every frame, right before your eyes. Burning makes you wish you didn’t have to blink.
Burning is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms.