Hopelessness, Restlessness, and Rage – Burning Movie Review


Burning, the latest film from director Lee Chang-dong, is one of those movies that will make you question everything you think you know about what you’re seeing. I’ve had more than 12 hours to process and I still have no idea what was going on.

I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about Burning before seeing it. I knew Steven Yeun is in it, and I think I must have read the description because I made some assumptions based on it, but I don’t know if I would have even seen it if there hadn’t been a Q&A with Steven last night at Lincoln Center.

Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, the film follows Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), an aspiring writer, as he is forced to move back into his childhood home after his father is arrested for assault. He runs into an old friend, Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), and they start a relationship just as she is traveling to Africa. When she returns, she brings a new man with her, Ben (Steven Yeun), as they bonded after being stuck at the Nairobi airport.

Burning is, if you’ll excuse the pun, a slow burn. It takes a while before anything really happens, but when it does, you’ll have been tense the entire time, just waiting. The music is haunting and nerve-wracking, ratcheting up the burningtension. Jongsu is our narrator, so to speak, so we see his loneliness, his apathy, as he drifts through life with no real prospects, completely stuck on his writing. Haemi is demonstrative; she tells a lot of stories, but the ones that hit the hardest are her description of the sunset in Africa that made her want to disappear and her recollection of falling down a well as a child, waiting for someone to rescue her. Ben, by comparison, is a virtual mystery. He’s wealthy, but we never learn what it is he does for a living, and his main hobby, as he later tells Jongsu, is to burn down abandoned greenhouses.

I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s hard to discuss without spoiling. Burning is a mystery. Not just in the traditional sense, where Haemi disappears and Jongsu tries to figure out what happened to her, but also in the sense that we can’t necessarily trust what we’re told, or even what we’re seeing. For example, Haemi’s claim about falling down a well is refuted by her family, who insist that there wasn’t even a well on their property. Yet Jongsu’s mother says that there was a well. Haemi studies pantomime, and things not really being there is a running theme through the film. Likewise, Ben is big on metaphors, which will be extremely important.

Ben is the biggest mystery of all. At the Q&A, Steven talked about how he had complete freedom to determine Ben’s motivations, and as such, he is the only person who knows Ben’s true nature. Not even the director is aware. It is a bit frustrating to not get any answers, but that isn’t the point of the film. It’s about hopelessness, restlessness, and rage. It’s a universal story about being angry at your circumstances, being alone even when surrounded by people, and unsure of where to go next.

Burning is currently playing in New York City, opens in Los Angeles November 2, and everywhere November 9.

Author: Jamie Sugah

Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.

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