Jong-soo (played by Yoo Ah-in) lives on a decrepit family farm in Paju and takes on lousy part-time jobs in order to make ends meet. Over the course of one such task, Jong-soo meets Hae-mi (played by Jeon Jong-seo), who is also apparently from Paju, in about as bad a financial situation as Jong-soo, yet is also planning a trip to Africa. Hae-mi asks Jong-soo to look after her cat while she's gone. And so begins the first of many irrelevant mysteries in "Burning"- does Hae-mi indeed own a cat?
Yes, that phrasing may be a tad facetious, but "Burning" is the kind of the movie that provokes facetious reactions, what with its almost complete lack of interest in anything vaguely resembling a plot. Jong-soo spends a ridiculous amount of energy in the second half of "Burning" just asking various random people to confirm or deny the existence of an old water well. Why Jong-soo is so obsessed with these questions is left ambiguous.
Well, actually I can think of one reason why Jong-soo wanders around doing nothing. No work. Probably my favorite scene is when Joon-soo is standing with other day laborers at full attention, and eventually just wanders off once it becomes obvious that he's wasting his time. Jong-soo is a man of few words. This is awkward considering he's also the guy investigating most of the film's possibly imaginary mysteries. Jong-soo obsesses over minor observations half an hour after everyone else has already forgotten about them.
Yoo Ah-in is good in the role, for whatever that's worth. He acts exactly how I would expect a sad introspective loner would act, right down to the awkward interactions with his apparently two only friends- Hae-mi and Ben (played by Steven Yeun), who also wanders around aimlessly just like Jong-soo and Hae-mi. It's just, Ben has financial security, so he can buy stuff. That makes him attractive to women. I guess. Ben also tells weird, boring stories. Some people are impressed by those, apparently.
Not me though. I get what "Burning" is going for. It's two and a half hours long with minimum attention to dialog and maximum attention to landscapes. There's a big lovingly rendered scene where Hae-mi dances around topless in the sunset while no one watches, except the viewer of course. She must have learned how to do that in Africa. Oh don't worry, we get to see Yoo Ah-in with his shirt off eventually. Evidently Jong-soo spends a lot of time at the gym.
That's all "Burning" really has. The movie is a long series of abstract isolated scenes about nothing that only sound kind of vaguely interesting when taken completely out of context. Jong-goo overthinks things, and it's fairly self-evident that writer/director Lee Chang-dong is expecting us to do likewise. Well personally, I don't think there's anything worth overthinking here. The torture the main characters go through is mainly a result of their being bored into near clinical depression. I try not to encourage people to think like that.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Burning""
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