Lee Chang-dong’s Burning features red-hot actor Yoo Ah-in (as Jong-su), Steven Yeun (as Ben) and newcomer Jeon Jong-seo (as Hae-mi) in an intricate thriller that switches between the wealthy Gangnam neighbourhood and farmlands just outside Paju, a city south of the Demilitarised Zone.
While a social commentary on class divides and politics flickers quietly on the edges of the film, it does not distract from Burning’s romance and gripping mystery. The film’s images and characters all find something spectacular in the otherwise unremarkable and quotidian. Masterfully lensed by Hong Kyung-pyo, the farmland seems more vast, the sunset more sublime and the fog more terrifying.
A sweaty but ordinary trip for delivery man (and wannabe writer) Jong-su turns into a life-changing meeting with Hae-mi (a part-time dancer who claims they were childhood friends), while a cumbersome delay at a Nairobi airport kindles an unlikely relationship between the frugal Hae-mi and the privileged, enigmatic Ben. It is no wonder that Hae-mi loves pantomime and Jong-su wants to write fiction. All are in search of a more dramatic universe, one where you can have anything and everything, as long as you can imagine it.
The film takes a philosophical turn when Hae-mi speaks of the “little hunger” – a physical need for food – and the “great hunger” – a search for meaning in one’s life. It is this great hunger that she grapples with most, in between her work and time in the tiny room she lives in, where sunlight only shines for a fleeting moment, once a day.
Life seems to look up for Hae-mi when she arrives in Paju at Jong-su’s doorstep, riding in Ben’s flashy Porsche. Here, the sky is wide and the view is unobscured by buildings and towers. As the sun sets, Hae-mi blooms as she slowly dances, arms raised against the sky streaked in a brilliant red, orange and purple. Here, she is magnificent, heavenly. There is no trace of the wastes and worries of life. The great hunger, seemingly satisfied.
And then suddenly, the brutish, guttural moo of Jong-su’s cow offscreen pierces the scene. The illusion shatters. This is reality – in all its miseries, anxieties and absurdities. Hae-mi starts to sob. Here she is, metres away from a lone, stinking cow, in front of a shabby house, on the fringes of the country. Her performance falters; the great hunger returns.
Things grow more unnerving when Hae-mi suddenly goes AWOL, after a phone call Jong-su receives from her, where some struggling is heard. The mysterious Ben, who reveals that he has a hobby of burning greenhouses, quickly becomes a suspect. However, answers to Hae-mi’s disappearance are few and far between for Jong-su. Glimpses of his father’s fiery temper show, as Jong-su decides to take matters into his own hands, leaving a rather emotionally confusing end to an otherwise thoughtful and convincing film.
The film’s meditative pace and intriguing characters carry it through the 148-minute runtime rather engagingly, while still leaving many things untold. Burning is a gem of a film that does not shy away from showing both the damning tribulations of life and some of its precious, better moments.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff