Early on in Burning, Hae-mi, a young women who is studying pantomime, demonstrates the practice by pantomiming the eating of a tangerine. When her friend, Jong-su, reacts with polite skepticism, Hae-mi good-naturedly tries to explain the virtue to him: “I can eat tangerine whenever I want.” She can’t really, of course, but as Burning unfolds, that exchange initially serves as a reminder to the audience to poke at what is real and what is not. But while the film twists and turns over the course of two and a half hours, it becomes clear that the real question is whether or not reality matters.
Based on a short story by acclaimed author Haruki Murakami, Burning opens with two childhood friends – Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) and Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) – reunited by chance. It’s revealed to both the audience and Jong-su in small ways over the course of the film that he looms larger in her memory than she does in his, but Jong-su is certainly interested in rekindling the relationship. So much so, in fact, that he agrees to feed Hae-mi’s cat while she’s away in Africa. When she returns from Africa with Ben (Steven Yeun), Jong-su realizes that his relationship with Hae-mi may not have been quite what he thought it was. He continues to spend time with the pair anyway, and as he does, the dynamics between Hae-mi and Ben and between Ben and Jong-su become more and more complicated.
I won’t say anything further about the plot, both for fear of spoiling it and also because Burning isn’t plot-heavy. This film is the slowest of slow burns; even the moments of highest tension don’t feel especially dramatic. Despite that, aside from one or two places when it drags just a bit – you’ll know what I mean when you get to a lot of greenhouse investigation – Burning is engaging despite its relatively long running time.
It’s Lee Chang-Dong, the award-winning director, that keeps the audience engaged in such a low-key film. Lee doesn’t entertain with heavy-handed action, but his methods are thorough in ways that are more satisfying. You have to work to track the shifting dynamics among the three central characters, both because the skilled performances are subtle and also because the relationships can change by the moment.
All three characters’ homes also add a lens through which we can view Jong-su, Hae-mi, and Ben. We’re in each place more than once, and in each case, the home is a reflection of the person. Hae-mi’s studio is tiny but quaint and entirely her own. Ben’s enormous apartment is luxurious and sophisticated, but mysteriously so. It’s a subtle but sly commentary on their relationship that while trying to find the bathroom, Jong-su is temporarily lost in Ben’s home. And perhaps most resonant is Jong-su’s home, which he’s moving into out of obligation at the beginning of the story. Initially the rural cattle farm is a mess that Jong-su inhabits more than he lives in it. But as the story develops, he grows more comfortable with himself and his space.
Like a satisfying road trip, Burning is long and winding, and it takes you through a variety of landscapes. You may be surprised by where you end up, but the destination is something of an afterthought. What will stick with you the longest will be what you observed along the way.