This is a personal and self-analysing mystery, received as questions constantly contradicting themselves
The layers and levels that come from Lee Chang-dong’s Burning are simply unassailable, and understanding the film in its entirety is nigh on impossible. So much of Burning is about misunderstanding, misdirection and sheer ‘blinkers-on’ blindness, it becomes hard work to even analyse it in any form of a simple format. Lee has streamed so much mystery into his two and a half hour epic, it’s conclusion becomes mind-bendingly important whilst remaining impossible to point a finger at exactly what it’s about, or what it’s hidden plot points actually are.
Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) bumps into his childhood friend Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) as he travels through Seoul on an errand. Agreeing to meet up for food, Hae-mi explains her upcoming trip to Africa, asking Jong-su to feed her cat whilst she is away. Jong-su agrees, but whenever he visits her small studio flat, the cat seems to be missing, despite evidence of it’s being. So when Jong-su arrives at the airport to greet Hae-mi, he is perturbed by her new friend Ben (Steven Yeun) a young rich man waiting to whisk Hae-mi off her feet and away from Jon-su.
Supplying a tremendous number of metaphors, Burning is a film desperate to enthral with its quiet but vast mystery, layered throughout the film as if it were a skyscraper slowly revealing itself from the bottom up. So much of Burning’s first half seems innocuous, almost mundane, it reveals both characters and tropes in a dragged out format. It feels almost as if it is an extended prologue, detailing each character one by one as in depth as possible. Never does it stray from it’s true vision, only shifting it’s angle or inserting questionable events to throw in mystery; but not in the sense a crime story would. This is a personal and self-analysing mystery, received as questions constantly contradicting themselves. Burning wants to be questioned, whilst supplying no concrete answers to any thrown at it, whatsoever.
Yet after the initial disparity of the story, it’s intentions become a little clearer, and that brings Burning’s earlier, simpler moments beautifully into transition to becoming far more relevant to the ultimate message. The foreshadowing feels as if it were exactly that, foreshadowing; but what it doesn’t let on to is its design to essentially lead nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Burning wants conclusions to be made about it, not make up its own, and by clearly setting out on that notion from the start, Lee has created a mysterious masterpiece of which analysis may never reach a state of finalisation. Too much of the narrative contradicts itself, while still remaining viable and enthralling.
There are clear links to social politics within South Korea, perhaps the most blatant trope of the multiple Burning uses, while the ties to North Korea and specifically North Korean propaganda are also difficult to miss. There’s a sexual awareness to the film that gives it another strange turn, doubling as both a red herring and a plot point leaving the class shift to become Burning’s most resonant message. Rarely do films prove the notion that every single shot, moment and line of dialogue are analysed painfully intricately, but Burning is the concrete to that proof. Lee has poured over the film making it as cryptic as possible.
Features simply do not appear as Burning does. It is astoundingly unique, and promotes a yearn for more clues, a desperation for the characters to ask the most pressing questions and a struggle to remember the tiny clues that may hold the key to Burning’s biggest questions. It toys and dances around the truth like it were written on a paper slowly disappearing into a bonfire. It will remain devoid of any clarity, but host so many questions it’s power is impossibly commanding.
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