There’s something special about South Korean Cinema. The way it evolves, tells a story, builds up the narrative or suspense is what reminds me why I not only love watching them but writing about them as well. Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story, “Barn Burning”, and directed by Chang-dong Lee, “Burning” manages to claim the title of the most effective slow-burning mystery drama which, trust me, only reading between the lines can help go through till the end.
Jong-su, a part-time worker, has an uneventful life. It seems there’s nothing that can add extra color to his daily life, but everything changes with the appearance of Hae-mi. She is a free-spirited young woman who likes to discover great hunger and tries to compare the same hunger with the hunger of soul, which eventually makes her to take a trip to Africa. Before leaving, she asks Jong-su to look after her cat until she is back. The man agrees and fulfils his promise dutifully. But life takes a drastic turn when Hae-mi returns from her trip with a man named Ben, whose presentable look promises something really sinister about him.
What’s sinister about him is something we’re yet to find out. But before then, Jong-su gets a chance to interact with him briefly, where Ben confesses he does not believe he had ever felt sad about anything. And when Jong-su asked whether it is true or not, Ben says, “How would I know if I don’t know how to describe it?” That short dialogue, or Ben’s yawning each time Hae-mi gets too excited to showcase her dancing ability is proof of that. The camera, with great patience, is focused on Ben to begin telling the story of “Burning” itself.
Jong-su does not hide his feelings for Hae-mi and even confides in Ben after hearing his mysterious acquaintance’s secret, “I like burning abandoned barn.” And when Jong-su asks why, he answers, “It’s my hobby and I do that every two months when I feel bored.” Not giving much away, there’s excellent body language used in the movie to have the viewer totally unprepared for what they are about to witness. And you can trust me that what “Burning” does is the genuine and subtle work of a master, perfectly crafted by director Chang-dong Lee.
In conclusion, everything in “Burning” is a metaphor, if you wish. Nothing is certain in it, nor may we meet Ben’s good or dark side, Hae-mi’s imaginary past or well-planned future. But it all goes down to one man, Jong-su – a writer, an intelligent but very shy man, who must make the most painful decision in his life – lose love vs lose life. Yes, in the end, it’s a great love story that’s never meant to have its happy ending. But in the mind of an artist, it is and it will, even if that ending is nothing short of just burned ashes.