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Updated: Feb 3, 2023

Released 2018. Director: Chang Dong Lee

YOU COULD FIND SO MUCH UNDER THE SURFACE in this layered drama, so much hidden and suggested that you’d feel compelled to see it again. An oblique, nuanced and absorbing view of the lives of three young people in Seoul, Burning is one of the best movies of 2018.

Written and directed by Chang Dong Lee, this movie defies easy description. What starts off looking like a romance, with the chance meeting on a busy street of Jong-Su and Hae-Mi, who used to live in the same village and attend the same primary school, slowly morphs into something quite unexpected. When Jong-Su goes to pick up Hae-Mi at the airport after she returns from a holiday in Africa, he’s surprised to find she’s in the company of a new friend, Ben.

The two men come from very different upbringings. One luxuriates in wealth and class, the other is a son of a farmer who survives on casual jobs. Ben is friendly, generous, but also mysterious. Jong-Su is accommodating, direct, an open book. Hae-Mi is the link but what really is she doing with the two guys? The more the three interact, the deeper their relationships go, the murkier the situation, until one day Hae-Mi disappears. Jong-Su suspects the worst whilst Ben doesn’t seem perturbed with his missing friend and has started dating a new girl.

Ah-In Yoo’s portrayal of Jong-Su has a quality of innocence, a trusting simplicity that shows in his candid expressions. Burrowing into his own sleuthing, Jong-Su is consumed with unravelling the mystery of Hae-Mi. Through her family he finds out she lied to him about an important childhood incident. This truth, however, is later contradicted by Jong-Su’s own mother.

Steven Yeun plays Ben like an incarnation of American Psycho. Ever smooth and composed, his impenetrable façade betrays little, in stark contrast to Jong-Su. Except in a couple of throwaway moments when he yawns discreetly, a sign he’s not really interested in his company or what they have to say.

It’s interesting to note that most times they hang out, there’s food and drinks – at a cafe, restaurant, at home, or sharing a joint. Over one of these sessions, in the company of Ben’s other friends, who all appear to move in a different social circle from Hae-Mi and Jong-Su, Hae-Mi performs a dance and shares with the group something she learned in Africa about “little hunger” (physical needs) and “great hunger” (spiritual needs). The experience was clearly memorable for Hae-Mi, perhaps life-changing, but Ben the host yawns, politely and inconspicuously.

Whether they realize it or not, the three protagonists are driven by a greater hunger that ultimately drives them to their destiny in a short time. Love, lust, maybe even some unspeakable, inexplicable compulsion. The shocking finale, preceded by an appearance of a cat, which may or may not have belonged to Hae-Mi, the discovery of her watch, and a lot of stalking, set alight a riddle that will never be solved. Earlier, Ben tells Jong-su he looks for abandoned greenhouses and burns them. Perhaps the relics is a codeword for lone young women?

Burning is a mystery, as much about a possible murder (or two) as it is about disconnect, the construct of memory and truth, and how you can never really know someone. See it again and I'm sure you'll find something new.


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