A love triangle that evolves into something much darker and much more provocative.
IMDB Synopsis: Jong-su bumps into a girl who used to live in the same neighborhood as him, who asks him to look after her cat while on a trip to Africa. When back, she introduces Ben, a mysterious guy she met there, who confesses his secret hobby.
Unfortunately, US audiences didn’t have a lot of exposure to 2018’s Burning, the South Korea export from incredible director Lee Chang Dong. But now that the film is on Netflix, US audience goers can finally view this brilliantly layered film that meditates on classism, toxic masculinity, restless youth, and isolation. The film is a slow burn, taking nearly two-and-a-half hours to come to its climactic conclusion, but it’s in service to the characters. As each suspicious look, jealous turn, or social vignette passes, the viewer is further enveloped by and invested in this world and its characters. They mystery is thinly veiled—especially if you have familiarity with the loose source material, Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami—but after 148 minutes it’s not the plot that devastates; it’s having lived with the three main characters and finding out how their paths diverge.
Jong-Su (Ah-in Yoo)—a disaffected Korea youth, a part-time delivery driver, aspiring writer with a bevy of family issues—has a chance encounter with a friend from his childhood, the flighty and magnetic Hae-Mi (Jong-seo Jun). After a sexual encounter, Jong-Su reads far more into their relationship than Hae-Mi, and agrees to feed her cat while she’s away. When she returns, she’s got a new (boy)friend in tow, Ben (Steven Yeun). Ben is Jong-Su’s foil in every; he’s rich, pretentious, charming, handsome, and well-cultured. Jong-Su—and by extension, the lower class—cannot compete with Ben—and the upper crust—for Hae-Mi’s affection, no matter how misplaced his love for her is.
It’s a little more than halfway through the film that the film turns from a jealous love triangle into something darker. It’s when Hae-Mi is no longer on screen that the Jong-Su turns. He’s fixated on her—and really the idea of her and the idea that we don’t have to be isolated and alone in the world. Juxtaposed with Ben who keeps living life, who used Hae-Mi as a disposable object to occupy time rather than a meaningful pursuit. And as the second half of the film builds tension toward the climactic conclusion between our two leads, it’s an interesting deconstruction of class and loneliness, wrapped up in a psychological thriller.
Burning is less effective as a whodunit, but is wholly compelling as a portrait of three intertwined lives. It shows us the beauty in the small things, the longing for a meaningful life, the emptiness of modern existence, and the sharp stab of heartache. While American audiences didn’t see a huge theatrical release and it didn’t get the official Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Burning is a masterpiece and should be watched by as many as possible.
Highlights: The four minute one-shot of Hae-Mi stripping and dancing stoned to Miles Davis in the sunset is one of the most visually arresting scenes you’ll see in the last decade.
MVP: Steven Yuen. Most of America knows him from The Walking Dead or Bong Joon Ho’s Okja (also on Netflix), but his turn as a young, upper class playboy with a hint of darkness is truly remarkable. Snubbed at the Oscars.
Should you see it: Absolutely. 10/10. It’s on Netflix, so you have no excuse not to.
Director: Lee Chang Dong
Studio: CGV Arthouse (Korea) & Well Go USA (US) // Original release date: October 26, 2018 (USA)