There’s so much about Chang-dong Lee’s dramatic mystery that I had a good time picking apart. It’s a long and occasionally trying film, I’ll admit, but director Chang-dong Lee slowly but surely takes every single element of his narrative and places them in their proper order, allowing for a character study about class warfare and paranoia that is quite satisfying. I wasn’t really privy to what “Burning” was about when I first stepped in to it, but I had a difficult time looking away from it as it unfolded, as Chang-dong Lee dissects a lot about the haves and the have nots, the idea of love, and obsession.
Farmer Jong-soo (Yoo Ah-in) runs into young Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), a mysterious girl who once lived in his neighborhood. After the pair form a romance, she asks him to watch her cat while she’s out of town on a trip to Africa. When she returns months later, she introduces him to her new friend Ben (Steven Yeun), a man she met on the trip. Ben proceeds to tell Jong-soo about his hobby. When Hae-mi suddenly goes missing, Jong-soo begins searching for her whereabouts, leading him in to a dark path.
Director Chang-dong Lee manages to construct a wonderful minimalist cast of skilled actors, all three of whom turn in stellar performances. There’s such a radical dynamic presented on screen that makes the friction and tension absolutely palpable. Although it’s never telegraphed, we can sense that something is bound to explode in our faces. Chang-dong Lee is very intricate about unfolding every plot point to where we’re forced in to this compelling and unusual mystery that Jong-soo becomes absolutely obsessed with. All the while, the director makes an interesting statement about class difference and the vast living situations that the trio of characters is accustomed to, as well as their attitude toward their own lives. Although Jong-soo is essentially the film’s protagonist, when we meet him he’s very run down and reaching for the bottom of the barrel.
He’s a man subjected to doing whatever he can to get by in his small farm, and he meets Hae-mi who is also veritably low class, but lives in a palace compared to him. She’s somehow managed to find the funding to travel through Africa, and spends a lot of her time spinning tales about her past and her current living situation that sparks a question of sanity within Jong-soo, especially when the events take an odd turn in the climax. Steven Yeun is also a scene stealer as the very charmed wealthy Ben who spends most of his time in the lap of luxury and poses a definite threat for Jong-soo and Haemi’s relationship when they meet. Not only is he charming, charismatic, and handsome, but he’s rich, something that Jong-soo knows is a definite selling point for the often shallow Haemi.
Much of “Burning” is spent within the mind of Jong-soo, as he descends in to the darkness of his own sanity, noticing many aspects about the dynamic between Ben and Haemi, and what happens when he begins to dig in to an unusual mystery in the finale. Director Chang-dong Lee uses this opportunity as a means of dissecting the massive class gap, and the effect it has on Jong-soo’s overall ability to decrypt much of the clues that lead him on the mystery that develops. While some may have an issue with the film’s deliberate pacing, “Burning” is a very good drama that pays off, leaving us to ponder on everything we’d seen long after the credits have ended.