“Burning” a film from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong, focuses on the intense feeling of hunger and how that hunger manifests within the characters of this movie. Everyone in this movie has one hunger or the other – it’s what this hunger truly signifies is what is up for debate.
This was Lee Chang-dong first film in eight years, and the setting is no more than a bleak and almost dystopian vision of the world: there is an underlying sense of the characters having to deal with the idea of the survival of the fittest which is laid bare in it’s shocking brutality. The three main characters live their lives warily, always looking at the other with desire, mistrust, need, and yet never with a certain of the accuracy. “Burning” bears an excruciating resemblance to Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning the difference being that the plot-line of “Burning” threatens the class status quo currently dominating the public in South Korea – the movie makes numerous mentions of South Korea’s ever-expanding unemployment figures while Murakami’s story mourned the loss of lost relationships and how they become lost.
“Burning” takes place in a world of ever-changing borders – a factor which impacts each of these characters in one way or another. The protagonist Jongsu’s village is located directly next to the border of North Korea – the constant sound of North Korean propaganda being played on loudspeaker pierces the air disturbing what is otherwise seen as a calm and scenic atmosphere. This contrast bears an eerily similar reflection to Jongsu’s emotions having reconciled with his childhood friend Haemi. Haemi is often viewed as the most unstable character in the film and this is represented through her cat, Boiler; a cat who was found in the Boiler room of her apartment and is literally Schrödinger’s cat. No one apart from Haemi has seen this cat in the first instance but Jongsu eventually comes to believe of his existence himself. The food vanishes, and the litter box is full. The cat doesn’t show itself. Finally, we have Ben, the more wealthy and stable character out of the previous two. So stable that in fact, Ben casually admits to Jongsu that he burns down greenhouses in his spare time without fearing any consequences. “You burn down other people’s greenhouses?” Jongsu asks. Ben simply smiles and nods, radiating a calm aura not once visible in Jongsu and Haemi throughout the entirety of this film.
The audience is permanently greeted with disorienting background noises throughout the entirety of the film. The traffic, the ringing of the phone, the street music, the North Korean propaganda being played over in the hills, Trump on the television in the corner of the room and the constant ring of the landline at Jongsu‘s farm house which is only ever met with dead silent air.
This movie consistently mirrors fractal elements. The story doesn’t stick to one narrative and has great tension to it. The tension between “what is” and “what isn’t,” beginning with Haemi’s tangerine pantomime and continuing on throughout the film. Things are never what they seem. The one consistent element film can be guessed from the title and that is fire; fire is incredibly important; for Haemi, it’s the fire that the Kalahari Bushmen dance circles around and for Jongsu, it is the bonfire of his mother’s clothes in the backyard. Lee Chang-dong has made a point of wardrobes playing a huge role in his latest movie: each character has another a wardrobe or a cupboard somewhat containing secrets; the slightest glimmer of light, a gleaming knife, a pink plastic watch, amongst many other everyday items which would not bear any importance in an everyday setting.
Lee Chang-dong’s film explores depth and space beyond what would be the typical film in its region as well as its foreign counterparts. It’s a brilliant film; entirely engrossing, yet outlandish.