“I find it fascinating when people cry. I’ve never shed a tear in my life”Review by Lily Taylor
‘Burning’ is a psychological thriller set in present day South Korea and based on a short story by Haruki Murakami entitled ‘Burning Barn’. Lee Jong-Su (Jeon Jong-Seo) plays a young man who is unexpectedly reunited with Shin Hae-mi (Yoo Ah-in), a childhood acquaintance from his village. The pair catch up over a cigarette and Hae-mi talks of her upcoming trip to Africa and of a pantomime class she has been taking, all the while peeling an imaginary tangerine. For the first time in the film she speaks of ‘little hunger’ and ‘big hunger’; telling Jong-su that to have big hunger means a desire to understand the meaning of life. She asks Lee Jong-su to come to her apartment and feed her cat, Boil (great name), whilst she is away travelling. The apartment is small and cramped but the couple quickly end up sleeping together in Hae-mi’s single bed. This experience appears to be Jong-su’s first time although it’s clearly not Hae-mi’s first rodeo, judging by the box of condoms placed conveniently under her bed.
Jong-su keeps his promise to feed Boil although he never actually gets to meet him. Boil makes his presence known however, via some chocolate mini rolls left in his litter tray. At the end of the trip to Africa, Jong-Su drives to meet Hae-mi at the airport and is surprised to see that she has arrived with a man named Ben (Steven Yeun) that she met in Nairobi. This Ben chap immediately comes across as being confident and collected although rather mysterious. The trio go for dinner together and Hae-mi becomes emotional when talking about her experiences in Africa. She begins to cry when describing a sunset she watched and confesses that she simply wanted to disappear, as though she had never existed in the first place (foreshadowing much?).
As the film progresses we learn more about Jong-su’s home life and his family. His father is a cattle farmer on the verge of going to prison and he has lost contact with his mother who left when he was just a child. Ben And Hae-mi visit him at his family home and share a joint whilst discussing life and a bit about Hae-mi’s childhood growing up near the farm. Hae-mi later decides to imitate the ‘big hunger’ dance she witnessed in Africa without her top on… pretty strange but you do you, girl. After she falls asleep, the two men remain outside chatting. Ben confesses that he’s a casual arsonist and likes to burn down abandoned greenhouses every so often, once again, you do you. He explains that there are many old greenhouses in the countryside surrounding the farm and promises there will be another burning very close to the farm in the near future. In turn, Jong-Su tells Ben that he is in love with Hae-mi but instead of confessing his feelings to her directly, he ends up insinuating that she is a whore for undressing in front of men and she leaves the farm in silence.
Jong-su seems fascinated by Ben’s pyromania hobby and spends the next couple of weeks searching the greenhouses in the nearby area to see if any have burnt down. One day, he receives a brief call from Hae-mi but it cuts off after some unintelligible sounds and she will not answer any of his return calls. Eventually, Jong-su becomes worried and visits her apartment to investigate. He finds her home to be the polar opposite of the messy, crowded apartment he was initially introduced to. Everything is tidied and in order, with no sign of dear Boil the cat. As more time passes without contact from Hae-mi, Jong-su grows almost obsessed with finding her and begins to start tailing Ben fearing he may be responsible for her disappearance; he even reaches out to her family to find out as much as possible about this girl who seems to have never existed at all.
I don’t want to ruin the ending here because I think it would spoil the film for you but I do recommend you see it. Having read Haruki Murakami books in the past I was pretty sure we would be in for a long and detailed journey without any sort of satisfying conclusion; thanks to director, Lee Chang-dong, I was proved wrong. Forgive the pun but ‘Burning’ is most definitely a slow burner, a bit of a thinker. There are themes repeated throughout the film that tie in wonderfully together at the end. I found the whole character of Hae-mi fascinating and I think it was well played. Another brilliant element of this film is the subtlety of the score and the prolific use of silence, nothing builds tension like a nice awkward silence. The score fits each scene and there’s a distinct variation in the styles of music used, for example, smooth jazz while the characters are getting high together. Steven Yeun’s character was well played and sported a constant smirk throughout the film just reiterating the fact that he sees it all as just a game.
As with any film, there were a few pernickety flaws to discuss. The most irritating thing for me was Jong-su’s painfully gormless, mouth-breathing expression. He just lets his mouth hang open which is never an appealing look and not ideal for showcasing your range as an actor. His character also developed a strange habit of giving his flesh rope a little tug (wink wink) in Hae-mi’s bed, didn’t feel it was pertinent to the story really. Having said that I really enjoyed the film and the ending definitely floats my boat, absolutely worth a watch.