In ‘Burning,’ director Chang-dong Lee brings us a mystery centered around a secret love triangle of sorts. It’s based on the short story called ‘Barn Burning’ by William Faulkner which is about conflict, control and honor. It’s about the decision to do what’s right in the name of justice or to be loyal to family. The book is narrated by an unnamed third person and in the film, also about justice, the audience feels as if they’re an unnamed witness to something sinister. The story unravels rather gradually, even lethargically, but you’re compelled to stay with it simply by the look on the main characters face. In fact, it’s already being considered for an Oscar at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film this year. Not new to him and not bad for a man who only has six directing credits.
South Korean actor, Yoo Ah-in, makes a wise choice in playing Jong-su, the protagonist of the story who bumps into old chum from school named Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) and ends up falling in love. He’s stunned with her beauty and by the fact that she’d even look at him with him only being a farmer’s son. He tries to impress her by telling her that he went to college for creative writing and plans on being a novelist. He listens as she tells him the difference between the ‘Little Hunger’ and the ‘Great Hunger’ and how desperately she has the Great Hunger; so much so that it’s calling her to Africa. The Little Hunger is merely a person who’s hungry. The Great Hunger is someone wishing to know why we live, who genuinely wants to know what the meaning of life is. He goes to her place to have sex and meet her cat who he’s agreed to feed while she’s on her trip. The cat respectfully declines an invitation to meet him but he agrees to feed it because at least he gets to be in her room and among her things. Her room is a mess but it’s not as bad as his. She finally returns from Africa without his ever meeting her cat. When he goes to pick her up, she has a new friend with her by the name of Ben. Playing Ben, our antagonist is Steven Yeun from ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Sorry to Bother You,’ who’s actually making his debut in Korean cinema with the role.
Ben is wealthy and cultured and immediately a threat to Jong-su. They all get to know one another better and Ben confesses to Jong-su that he likes to burn down people’s greenhouses for no other reason than to rid the world of them so they can be replaced with something better. When Haemi disappears, Jong-su starts an investigation where all roads lead to Ben. What unravels next is an engaging riddle about who Ben really is and where has Haemi gone. Jong-su may have to get his hands dirty but he’s prepared to find out the answers to both of those questions.
I really liked the characters, the performances, I liked the movie in total but not the length. We meet some characters that are hardly worth knowing which unquestionable slows the process down. Jong-su’s father is in jail and Jong-su has an insignificant conversation with his lawyer, played with perfect timbre and measure by Seong-kun Mun, about the stubbornness of his father and about Jong-su’s writing. This doesn’t help the narrative one bit. There are other characters that float in for reasons that take up time when what they’re telling us would and could have been taken care of through different, and shorter means. It wasn’t necessary to tell this story in the two and a half hours that it took to watch. I enjoyed the film but had it been cut to expedite its development, it would have been that much more provocative. Regardless, ‘Burning’ pays off if you stick with it so see it this weekend at a theatre near you.