Do we really need another portrait of a frustrated sad-sack young man, even if it comes in the form of one of Lee Chang-dong’s typically haunting, deliberately paced character studies? Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an aspiring writer, reunites with Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), a crush from his youth just in time to sleep with her before she heads to Africa and asks him to feed her cat. She comes back with a new boyfriend, Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich asshole who may or may not actually just be a total psycho. Burning spends all of its energy diagnosing Jong-su’s dreary existence and cataloging his own hopes for a future triggered by his one night with Hae-mi, about whom we wind up knowing materially nothing, making both her nebulous fate and the success or failure of Jong-su’s unrequited love some sort of psychic Macguffin, forcing the character to do stuff that turns him basically into an allegorical pawn.
Reminiscent of Kim Ki-duk’s equally acclaimed and equally stultifying mid-2000s work, like 3-Iron, this is another in a long line of formally precise, vaguely genre-inflected films loaded with signifiers about thwarted masculinity and socioeconomic struggle: occasional grace notes like a sunset dance seem calculated merely to add some layer of class to the thriller bits, while obvious elements like hearing Trump on the radio and setting this near the North Korean border don’t make this somehow political by sheer dint of their appearance. Is this a pensive, deliberately paced exercise in suspense and ambiguity and a referendum on modernity in South Korea? Or is it a two-and-a-half-hour slog about a dork who takes out his frustrations on a bully? Does it matter?
Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2018 | Dispatch 1.