In Burning, directed by Chang-done Lee, Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) is a writer travelling through a city in South Korea on his way to his father’s farm near the North Korean border. His father is on trial for crimes against a public official and needs someone to take care of his home until the matter is settled.
Along this journey, Jong-su runs into an old friend named Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), a spirited young woman who is searching for meaning in her life. They strike up a conversation and Haemi asks if he can watch her cat while she is away in Africa. Upon her return Haemi introduces Jong-su to someone she met overseas named Ben (Steven Yeun). Ben is a young, wealthy Korean with resources and time to spare. He enjoys getting to know Jong-Su and Hae-Mi and is entertained by their more humble lifestyles and general perspective. As time passes by, Jong-su becomes suspicious of Ben’s intentions. Could Jong-su’s feelings of jealously be clouding his judgement; or is Hae-mi’s spiritual path of discovery inviting unintended consequences?
The main actor Ah-In Yoo, does a good job of portraying someone who struggles to socialize and yet still manages to engage in new situations. Jong-Su is a writer and is looking for the right story to work on. Perhaps that is why he seems to analyze moments in his life more than most would. He finds mysteries all around him and is determined to solve them. Which is why Ben intrigues him. Ben is detached from the usual machine of society, operating independently and without much responsibility as far Jong-Su can tell. Hae-Mi is drawn to both of these men for different reasons and Jong-su is not sure how to feel about this.
At times I found it difficult to get into the story. The movie is a slow progression into Jong-Su’s life that meanders through his daily routine. The moments that bring energy into it are when Haemi shows up and then Ben shortly after. I did find it interesting that Jong-Su’s farm was so close to the border of North Korea that you could hear the propaganda speakers blaring in the distance. Still I would have liked more interactions with the other characters than what was presented.
While I enjoyed the acting in this movie, as well as the cinematography, I think the movie has some pacing problems. At just almost two and a half hours, the amount of story you get just doesn’t justify the runtime. I could have easily removed 30 to 40 minutes without compromising atmosphere or character development. We get pieces of Jong-Su’s backstory here and there, but it never felt integral to the main plot. The third act provides a revelation of details that didn’t hit me as strongly as it could have and I wonder how much more powerful the ending would have been had the momentum not been so slow to accelerate.
Burning is a tale of three lost souls looking for meaning in their own unique way. I enjoyed the journey I was taken on, but not so much how long it took to get there. Ah-in Yoo is terrific as well as Jong-seo Jeon. Steven Yeun is excellent as the man with an enigmatic personality. He portrays Ben with this generous nature, but he makes you feel like there are secrets he’s not sharing. This movie is based on a short story and I wonder if this might have made for a better short film. In any case this film does offer a good character study on how we value humanity and our place in it. I’m sure if I was that close to North Korea, I’d ponder those things as well.
Synopsis: Jong-su, a part-time worker, bumps into Hae-mi while delivering, who used to live in the same neighborhood. Hae-mi asks him to look after her cat while she’s on a trip to Africa. When Hae-mi comes back, she introduces Ben, a mysterious guy she met in Africa, to Jong-su. One day, Ben visits Jong-su’s with Hae-mi and confesses his own secret hobby.
Director: Chang-dong Lee
Writers: Jung-mi Oh, Chang-dong Lee
Stars: Ah-In Yoo, Jong-seo Jeon, Steven Yeun
Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 2 Hour, 28 Minutes