Rating: 4 out of 5
“Do you know Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert, Africa? It is said that Bushmen have two types of hungry people. Little hungry and great hungry. Little hungry people are physically hungry, the great hungry is a person who is hungry for survival. Why do we live, what is the significance of living? People who are always looking for these answers. This kind of person is really hungry, they are called the great hungry.”
When this line is uttered twenty five minutes into Burning it presents itself as a metaphor in the form of a dance, where the little hunger is the starting position and the ending, great hunger, the hands begin at shoulder level until they reach straight up into the air.
“What is a metaphor?”
The same character asks, she gets no response. Burning directed by Chang- dong Lee blurs the line between the literal and the metaphorical so finely that by the end of the film they have become indistinguishable. This film is a mystery in the smallest sense of the unresolved questions in our personal lives to the grandest of all, why are we here? Many of the questions the movie asks it slyly evades, to leave us, the audience, to the pondering. The films first act is misleadingly slow, it’s a rare story that folds in on itself as events and phrases from the past take on new meaning in the present. The thrills are minute in their appearance but the implications are huge.
The story follows Lee Jong-su (played with passionate reserve by Ah-In Yoo) an everyman of sorts who accidentally stumbles into an old friend from his village Shin Hae-mi (Jong- seo Jeon in a perfectly ambiguous performance, of all the films mysteries she may be the greatest). They have a brief love affair before Shin Hae-mi leaves on a trip to Africa, Lee Jong-su comes to feed her cat everyday while she’s away, however, when he does so he stares out at this beautiful tower that at the right time of day casts a beam of light into the room, and then he stands there, masterbating. A strange habit, sure. Stranger yet, however, Lee Jong-su never sees the cat he’s supposed to be feeding. Stranger yet, there’s a litter box with fresh poop inside. Through this bizarre act of habituation, Jong-su comes to develop feelings for this woman, the repetition and commitment bringing him closer to her despite her absence. Upon returning from Africa she introduces Lee Jong-su to her new friend Ben, a rich and charismatic individual. They become an odd trio of sorts, but to say anything more of their relationship would be to spoil the fun of this film. Everything mentioned above is somehow essential to the mystery ahead. The script is so clever and thoughtful, a detail that at one moment seems mundane or ordinary is suddenly realized as a crucial aspect to understanding the narrative.
If there are any flaws in this film, and there are, the story bites off a few more sub-plots than it can chew. Jong-su’s father acts as a plot device, pushing Jong-su to move into his childhood home after his father obstructs justice by hurting a police officer, after this, however, his inclusion feels lazy and half baked, same goes for Jong-su’s mother whose only purpose is to reveal an important albeit misleading break in Jong-su’s case. These diversions felt like they belonged to a different film but did little to affect the overall impact.
Because this film is really great, really really great, moment to moment it subverts our expectations. In 2018, it’s damn hard to film a truly memorable and unique scene of someone smoking weed, this film manages to create one that is not only Lynchian and dreamy but significant to the story as a whole. Burning does what a lot of inadequate films nowadays don’t do, the writers were just as conscious of the beginning of their film at its end as they were at the start. Everything falls into place, like the greatest mysteries it doesn’t answer all your questions but it gives you the pieces to, there are hints, parallels and clues scattered throughout but they don’t scream at you and demand answering. The films style becomes an elusive metaphor for the narrative, this mystery does not call out to Jong-su with fervor and intensity but instead with a quiet longing.
Don’t walk in expecting a pulse pounding thriller or a witty fast talking private eye flick but an honest to god mystery, where the audience gets to join the protagonist in their detective efforts. The best part, is you may reach a different conclusion then Jong-su does, which makes the films truly shocking final moments all the more stunning. The pace of this film is not expeditious, so if you prefer quick cuts, explosions and soft-porn (even the sex scene is filmed with a stark realism), then this is perhaps not the film for you, but if you’ve come to the theater expecting a story and are even a little willing to think and play detective for two and a half hours than this film will embrace you with open arms. Burning mimics the dance performed by the African bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, it begins low, subdued until it rises to great heights. We, like Jong-su, begin this film little hungry, craving material and food, by the end, however, we are great hungry, we want the answers to the narrative and to the mysteries of life. All the answers are here, we just need to be looking hard enough to find them.