Review: The Fiery Obsessions of Lee Chang-dong’s ‘Burning’

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This review was originally published for UW Film Club and has since been republished here with the author’s permission.

After generating considerable buzz on the festival circuit, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is finally hitting Seattle theaters this week. Selected as South Korea’s Best Foreign Film nomination, Burning has a small release here in the states, but certainly, one that should not go unnoticed. It doesn’t have a big marketing push or wide release, only a week long stay at the North West Film Forum. So before Oscar season rolls around, I suggest you make some time to experience this methodically structured mystery thriller before you miss out.

The film follows Lee Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo), a twenty-something mail carrier who lives alone. One day while delivering a package, he encounters an old friend from his village, Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon). Together, they quickly kindle a sexual albeit brief relationship that Jong-su quickly becomes attached to. When Hae-mi goes on a trip to Africa, that relationship is put on hold. She returns with a mysterious rich young man named Ben (Steven Yeun), causing Jong-su to question what they have and what he means to her.  With Hae-mi drifting away, Jong-su develops a growing obsession with her and starts getting defensive when Ben’s secret motives start to show. 

In the pantheon of symbolic titles, Burning is a very fitting one. It operates as a slowly constructed mystery thriller with underlying psychological elements that build and build until it reaches a boiling point. This is not an American thriller most are familiar with, but rather an art house rendition that requires a degree of patience. Narratively, it has hints of David Fincher’s Gone Girl, but this is a much more subdued iteration: no radical plot twists or flashy revelations, just the internal musings of our central character that drive the plot. The film will test your patience, but as a result, it will yield a rewarding story about sexual obsessions that evolve into obsessive actions.

Like an ember that ignites a raging bonfire, Jong-su’s infernal psychological obsession is at the core of Burning. The notion of burning is not only conveyed through assorted symbols and narrative elements, but also the burning obsession inside of Jong-su. From the first encounter, you understand why a reserved introvert like Jong-su clings to Hae-mi after receiving a taste of affection. He is a lonely millennial whose father is in jail, whose mother abandoned him, and who literally lives on the fringes of society by living on the border of North and South Korea. His obsession is a product of status — he obsesses because Hae-mi is the only thing he has to love. In this way, Lee injects the film with social commentary on the forgotten youth who struggles to find a place in society. The contrast between impoverished Jong-su and rich yuppie Ben is not only one of the defining competitions between them in the race for Hae-mi’s affection, but also one of the ways Lee underscores the film’s social commentary. Showing Jong-su in an aimless state of living sets the stage for his obsession while also commenting on the social factors that led him here. 

When his source of affection is threatened, Jong-su engages in obsessive behavior that progressively escalates. Part sexual desire, part reactionary defense, part moral fortitude, Jong-su’s multi-dimensional obsession is conveyed almost entirely with silent actions over spoken words. One of the film’s great achievements is how much internal development occurs without actors saying anything at all. Layered meaning, double entendre, and symbolism give credence to the depth of Jong-su’s character as audiences are left to fill in the blanks when events occur. The film is long and it will test your patience, but intentionally so. The mystique of observing and understanding is the secret sauce of Burning and it requires full attention and alignment with Jong-su to fully appreciate, but boy is it great to see it play out on screen.

Burning thrives as a psychological thriller that plays to implied meaning over overt hand-holding. In very methodical ways, Lee constructs a burning obsession that eats at our protagonist until it culminates in a climatic reprieve that’ll etch itself into your consciousness. It is a slow yet completely in-control film that has tendencies that may bore some but also creates a wonderful intangible sense of loss, shock, and neurosis. While many will pass this up, don’t be surprised if come February you hear “Burning” read out loud on stage, at least in nomination form, during the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars.

4.25/5 STARS