Burning is a mysterious character study that grows into a somber, generational portrait. There is a soft sadness that permeates the film and steadily spreads, until it gradually devours each of the main characters. It may devour you.
Set in and around the South Korean city of Paju, the film stars Yoo Ah-in as Lee Jong-su, a twentysomething aspiring novelist who scrapes together a lonely existence by picking up occasional retail jobs. Delivering jackets one day, he bumps into a childhood acquaintance, Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who is working as a sales dancer. (She wriggles outside storefronts, enticing passersby to shop.) Through Hae-mi, Jong-su also meets Ben (Steven Yeun), an inexplicably independently wealthy sophisticate a few years older than them. What ensues is something of a curious love triangle, but mostly a depiction of youthful disaffection as experienced in a society defined by materialistic consumption.
Jong-su’s artistic aspirations seem to have no place in this Korea. “What kind of writing are you going to create?” a lawyer asks him, struggling to describe the endeavor outside of production terms. Hae-mi, meanwhile, has wholeheartedly embraced the prevailing value system. (“I had plastic surgery. I got pretty right?” she asks Jong-su shortly after reuniting with him.) Over beers that night, she demonstrates her talent for pantomime, imitating the act of peeling a tangerine. She describes pantomime not as an artistic talent, but in terms of consumption: it allows her to have whatever she wants whenever she wants. Not that she’s content to pretend; we soon learn Hae-mi has extensive credit-card debts that she can’t imagine away.
Ben can have whatever he wants whenever he wants—in reality. Jong-su, an admirer of classic novelists from the West, says that Ben reminds him of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby—young, rich, and mysterious—and notes that there are a lot of Gatsbys in Korea. For Jong-su and Hae-mi, who grew up in a farming village outside Paju, Ben is at once a figure of admiration and envy.
Given the class-conflicted trio at the center of Burning, perhaps The Great Gatsby was inspiration for Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who wrote the short story on which the movie is based. Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine) directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Oh Jung-mi, adding another layer of cultural interpretation. The result is a tenderly directed, achingly observed movie that initially keeps you at a distance (Yoo Ah-in gives a purposefully passive performance), then intriguingly draws you into its secrecy, and finally, suddenly leaves you gutted.
There is a distinct shift about halfway through the film when Hae-mi and Ben make a surprise visit to Jong-su’s family farm, where he has had to return in order to help his troubled father. Away from the hyperactivity of the city, they share a joint at sunset, prompting Hae-mi to describe it as “maybe my best day ever.” This is notable because earlier in the film she recounted another sunset experience that left her feeling suicidal. But that time, she was alone. Here she is with companions, even if their relationships are fluid and undefined. Embracing the moment, Hae-mi performs an interpretive dance that Lee and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo capture in gorgeous silhouette.
Shadow imagery becomes a motif from there on out, which is appropriate. After that night, each character becomes something of ghost, the slight companionship they found together drifting away. For Jong-su—the quietest of the three but also the one whose loneliness may be most deeply felt—this leads to a paroxysm I won’t spoil. It’s shocking, to be sure, and captures not only one young man’s distress as an artist among vultures, but also a generation’s dismay at trying to find meaning and identity in world built for nothing more than the next big sale.