What takes a long time… after acclaimed festival performances around the world, the mystery drama has arrived BURNING has now finally made it to United Kingdom – and deserves the greatest possible attention here. We’ll reveal why in our review of the film.
The Plot Summary
After his studies, young Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) returns to his home village. A chance reunion with his schoolmate Haemi (Jong-seo Jun) leads to a night together. Jongsu’s feelings are awakened, but the timing is bad – Haemi is about to go on a long-planned (Steven Yeun) trip to Africa. Jongsu eagerly awaits the day of her return. However, he doesn’t find Haemi alone at the airport. On the trip she met the wealthy and mysterious Ben, who from now on never left her side. When Haemi suddenly disappears without a trace, the desperate search for her plunges Jongsu into a labyrinth of mistrust and paranoia.
Explanation of the Ending
If you open the online film database IMDb and look at the page for the South Korean mystery drama “Burning,” you will discover a whopping 136 entries under the “Awards and Nominations” category. The film, which celebrated its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival over a year ago (to illustrate: the following year’s event only recently ended), had its regular release in the production country of South Korea on May 17, 2018 and has already opened in United Kingdom ran four (!) film festivals, received awards around the world; including on the Côte d’Azur, in Toronto and at the Asian Film Awards, the “Asian Oscars” so to speak. Nevertheless, it didn’t make too many waves outside of the circle of cineastes. Also because he came away empty-handed at the prestigious Western award ceremonies such as the Golden Globes or the Oscars and was not even nominated. But the sixth directorial work by filmmaker and screenwriter Chang-dong Lee is slowly becoming apparent (“Milyang”) a larger audience. Certainly also thanks to the excellent word of mouth. “Burning” currently has a Metascore of 90, and on Rotten Tomatoes 94 percent of critics and 83 percent of viewers rate the film positively. And although you should have a little patience and leisure for the opulent 148 minutes to get behind the “mystery ‘Burning'”, you will be rewarded remarkably early – with a film whose almost impenetrable atmosphere creates an incomparable pull that you can’t help but feel don’t even want to withdraw.
Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), Haemi (Jun Jong-seo) and Ben (Steven Yeun) on the terrace of Jongsu’s parents’ house
As a rule, the films of a surrealist like David Lynch are always consulted for comparison purposes when filmmakers use similar staging pieces for their work. This is not the case with “Burning”; To roughly summarize: Following Chang-dong Lee through his story is actually relatively easy from start to finish because he tells it chronologically and what is shown is quite clear. Still, the comparison to Lynch (or other surrealists) isn’t far-fetched, because it’s the details that always give you the feeling that something about “Burning” isn’t what it seems. Starting with the fact that the main character Jongsu regularly feeds the cat of his beloved Haemi but until the end it is not clear whether the animal even exists, to the symbol of the burning greenhouses to the sudden disappearance of the female main character, which is accompanied by mysterious calls Lee deliberately leaves blank spaces that the viewer has to fill themselves. Unlike Lynch, this doesn’t drift into offensive madness, but the longer the story progresses, the less proverbial handholds the audience gets. And it is this feeling of disorientation caused by the subtle shifting of genre-typical habits that ultimately puts “Burning” in a category with films like “Lost Highway”: “Something is wrong here!” becomes the impression of the story’s credo – but what exactly that is, can hardly be specifically stated.
The burning greenhouses that give their name to “Burning” not only have an incredible visual impact. They also give the narrative anarchy a symbolic form, because it is almost impossible to summarize exactly what this is all about. This also explains the completely different content information at different festivals: If you compare the description of the Munich Film Festival with that of the Cologne Film Festival, you could easily think that you are dealing with two completely different productions. But in fact, describing “Burning” as a complex love triangle as well as a lost young man’s search for meaning or a thriller about a mysterious arsonist does justice. One could mock that Chang-dong Lee is only partially interested in leading each individual approach to a coherent end. Instead, until the end he insists on not filling every blank space with an answer; we’ll never know if the cat exists, where Haemi has gone, or what’s really going on inside the arsonist. But that’s not the point. With “Burning” the makers promise, above all, an extraordinary film experience. And that’s exactly what they deliver.
The enigmatic Haemi.
This feeling of a cinematic state of limbo is also underlined by the performances of the actors. Jong-seo Jun, who makes a breathtaking acting debut with “Burning”, is sometimes as shy as a deer as Haemi, then again plays the seductress and dances as an intangible mystery through a film whose events are Ah-in Yoo (“Veteran – Above the Law”) seems to perceive it with as much astonishment as the viewer. His reserved, naive acting, which makes his character’s insecurity palpable, makes him the ideal figure to identify with Steven Yeun (“OK yes”) an opponent is placed at your side who manages to do something amazing. He never portrays his rival Ben as an unpleasant person. Instead, he allows all points of attack to bounce away from him. It is always understandable why Haemi fell in love with him and his self-confident demeanor – and also why Jongsu sees him as a competitor. But again and again this articulate young man slips through your hands like a slimy eel. You just want to hate this yuppie with no points of attack. But you can’t. Why, like so many other things in “Burning”, cannot be explained exactly. And so this love triangle continues until it reaches its furious climax in the last ten minutes. Because it manages to satisfy without any further answers and because the images, the feeling, everything that makes “Burning” what can without a doubt be described as a “masterpiece” is of such breathtaking beauty that there is nothing to think about can somehow get enough of this film. Oh, those two and a half hours never ended…
Conclusion: A film like a state of limbo – with “Burning” director and author Chang-dong Lee tells a love story, a self-discovery drama and a mystery thriller within two and a half hours, which gets better and better the less the characters and events become tangible. A miracle!
“Burning” can be seen in selected USA cinemas from June 6th.