Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is an impressive piece of craftsmanship clearly filled with ambition. The film has scenes and sequences that instantly burn into the brain and an ever-escalating sense of tension that makes it impossible to turn away. However, when the inevitably bleak conclusion finally arrives, it’s hard to feel completely satisfied by the results. Something just doesn’t quite click.
The odd, dark, and punishingly long tale begins with a misdirecting meet-cute. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a lanky human skeleton who works as a day-laborer while trying to launch a career as a writer. He bumps into old school friend Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) while she’s running a raffle. He wins the prize and soon they’re boning back at her apartment. It’s unclear why, other than mutual loneliness and probably a handful of loose screws in both brains. Soon enough, Jong-su is housesitting Hae-mi’s non-existent cat while she’s off in Africa. He picks her up at the airport when she returns, and she’s accompanied by mysteriously wealthy playboy Ben (Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead). The weird duo transforms into an even more bizarre trio as Ben begins bringing the pair around to his wealthy friends like human novelties. It’s unclear what he wants from them. However, it is clear that there’s something wrong with Ben when he admits to regularly burning down greenhouses for fun without consequences. Then the gal disappears and, unsurprisingly, it takes a toll on Jong-su’s already crumbling psyche.
Burning is an unanswerable enigma of a movie. At times it feels like a thriller, at other times a harsh social critique or even an incredibly dark comedy. Whatever the filmmaker’s true motivations are never quite becomes clear. Perhaps that’s the point. The movie explores the harsh class structure in contemporary South Korea, but that comes wrapped within a Taxi Driver-esque “lonely man” narrative that can only end one way (hint: not well). Composed almost entirely out of stunningly crafted long takes that wring tension and suspense out of every moment, the movie puts viewers in a trance and the actors do their best to keep the motivations and truths of their characters just out of reach. For a while, it’s intoxicating.
Unfortunately, with a running time of 148 brooding minutes, the trance-like effect the filmmakers strive for soon wears thin. The film simply drags on far too long to land on such a deliberately ambiguous note. The climax is certainly memorable and as disturbing as you might fear while inching toward it. However, something about it just doesn’t feel satisfying. It hits all the symbolic notes and visual cues that director Lee Chang-dong dutifully peppered in along the endless journey, but it just doesn’t answer nearly enough questions to satisfy. Not that Burning had to be tied up in a pretty bow or anything like that. This was always going to be a mystery and remains so as the credits role. Nevertheless, the movie lingers to the point of languish and ends up feeling like something more satisfying to write a film studies thesis about than actually watch.