Based on a short story called Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami , Burning centres on Jong-su, who is drifting aimlessly in life, a part-time delivery man, an aspiring writer, a statistic in Korea’s high graduate unemployment figures, he is lost in the throng. So much so that his expression is almost empty, generic and blank but in a very emotive way communicates all of his complexities and his nothingness in perfect synchronicity.
A chance encounter with Hae-mi, a woman from hometown.The film starts out with romantic intentions. Jong-su’s expressionless features melt into a puppy love type adoration. He thinks nothing of the early relationship request to look after her cat while she travels with to Africa for a holiday ,driven by wanderlust. However when she returns she is not alone, flanked by the enigmatic Ben, handsome, charming and as we discover a societal class above Jong-su. He soon realises that his affection is no longer being reciprocated, ahas-min’s romantic gazes shifted and he has returned to invisibility and being a dear friend. Ben is now the object of Hae-mi’s affection but Ben has his own secrets and this leads the trio on a journey down an unexpectedly dark path.
A 2 1/2 hour Korean film about what initially appears to be a simple love triangle may be an uninviting prospect to some. Indeed at times it feels like very little is happening, this may not help ease frustrations, but look more closely and you will see a subtle glance, or hear an inflection in the dialogue that means more than it appears on the surface. While this film does have a long and slow smouldering fuse there is much to admire and much more than meets the eye bubbling under the surface. The film is laced and layered with a wide range of issues - the difficulty of family, the creative struggles of a writer, the challenges of unrequited love, the desire for power in relationships. All these combustive elements swirl around within the film as if awaiting for that single spark that will ignite something explosive. When that moment does arrives with a fervour and climax that tips Burning from a very good foreign language film into something truly special.
The truth at the core of this poetic piece of Korean cinema is that there is something within all of us that burns. Passion, creativity, jealousy, anger, desire for power, desire to be loved. We need to discover what it is and we must be mindful that when we tap into it, whatever it may be, there are dangers as to how it may manifest itself.