Obvious Obviousness: Burning Review

By Zuzanna Mietlinska

The story in “Burning” is as simple as complicated. Persistently trivialised yet never-to-be-forgotten. It is a genre mishmash of over two and a half hours, combining the elements of a thriller, a sappy melodrama with psychological motives. It is another creation of widely awarded director Chang-dong Lee, known for such pieces as “Oasis” (2002) or “Poetry” (2010). 

After completing his creative writing studies, young Jong-soo lost his moorings. Torn between the dream of becoming a professional writer and the need to return to his native village, he meets a long-lost neighbour from his childhood, charming Hae-mi. The newly initiated bond between them is being tested when Ben, handsome and rich Seoulite, got in their way. The peculiar love triangle is not devoid of material undertones – the lavish lifestyle of the mysterious seducer does not consort with the reality of rather poor Jong-soo. When Hae-mi disappears suddenly without a trace, the enamoured boy grows suspicion that her new flirtatious companion may be behind it. 

The seemingly dreamy landscape of the Korean village, long shots and reflective dialogues, however, should not let one’s guard down – with the development of the action we notice more and more allusions, ambiguities and signs that cloud our perception, directing our thoughts to a cloudy statement – Ben murdered the naive Hae-mi. 

Among the disappearing cats, emerging watches and burning greenhouses, it is worth asking yourself about the boundary between the truth and pure fiction, an objective fact and mere projections of jealous Jong-soo’s prejudice. Did fighting a losing battle for a girl’s heart caused him to escape into the world of writing imaginations? 

After all, the whole world is a mystery in his eyes – indeed, both characters and the way they are “introduced” and “moved out” of the plot axis is thought-provoking – they turn up and vanish unexpectedly, almost as if they did not belong to Lee’s universe. Consistently implemented conventionality, the constant questioning of the plausibility of what the characters say or feel confronts the viewer with a dilemma when trying to asses their motivations unambiguously. An open composition and a surprising final scene leave more questions than answers.

An attempt to accuse the prosperous Ben of contribution to the disappearance of the young girl, or the justification of Jong-soo’s obsessiveness about the Seoulite admirer falls through. The Korean director made sure that the key feature of the movie’s narrative was its ambiguity. The sophisticated game played on the socio-political field is one of the most interesting cinema proposals this winter.

Edited by Emil Mirchev

Artwork by Chira Tudoran