A chance meeting in life can set you down an unexpected path. Such is the case in Lee Chang-dong's Burning. Two friends, a man, and a woman, who haven't seen each other since children meet as adults. They end up hanging out for a bit before she embarks on a trip to Africa. During their brief encounter, she shows him how to mime. She pretends to eat a tangerine and tells him he can create his own if he is ever hungry.
Hunger is everywhere in Burning. How it manifests and what characters do out of hunger is what consistently fascinates in the film. Based on Haruki Murakami's short story Barn Burning, the film marks Lee's first in eight years. After their brief but intense encounter, Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) gets a call to come to pickup Haemi (Jong-seo Jun) from the airport. We learn early on he is a budding writer who loves William Faulkner. We also get the sense early on of his hunger for human connection. He father is cold and his mother ran off when he was little. The chance meeting with Haemi leads to sex so when she has Ben (Steven Yeun) in tow with her at the airport, Jongsu is uncertain where they stand. That is not all that is uncertain in Burning. Haemi speaks of a cat she has and asked Jongsu to feed while she is away. We never see the cat, nor does Jongsu. It would seem that she has made it up but why? This air of mystery helps Burning to shift from a romantic drama to something more akin to a thriller. The film is a triumph and constantly shifts itself across genres, making for a thrilling watch.
Ben's presence brings the class critique to the forefront. Jongsu refers to him a Gatsby at one point and the comparison is fitting. Ben drives a Porsche and serves as a counterpoint to Jongsu more Nick Carraway, everyman existence. Burning eventually reveals more about Ben, it is clear he is a chilling character, brought to striking life by Yeun. The tension between these two men, at different ends of the economic scale, gives the film an added layer of commentary that makes the film rich and deep.
The symbolism Lee utilizes also elevates the film far beyond a basic but engaging thriller. Closets are regularly shown. Each character has one and inside of it are secrets. Fire is another reoccurring element. Jongsu tells of a memory of having to burn his mother's clothes after she left at the order of his father. Ben confesses to regularly burning down greenhouses every couple of month. From the invisible cat of Haemi to the propaganda blasted in the farmlands of Jones's village, Burning gives viewers plenty to think about after the credits roll. This is a dense film that never feels burdened by these elements. It can function as a thriller but there is so much more going on.
Burning is one of the year's best films. It contains more than one memorable moment but one, in particular, has not left my memory. While at Jongsu's farm, Ben and he watch as Haemi dances topless. By the end she is in tears, Jongsu is enraptured and Ben is yawning. It sums up so much of what makes Burning a knockout.