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Burning (A Movie Review)

Updated: Sep 27, 2023


BURNING (2018)

Starring Ah-In Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jeon, Soo-Kyung Kim, Seung-ho Choi, Sung-Keun Moon, Bok-gi Min, Soo-Jeong Lee, Hye-ra Ban, Mi-Kyung Cha, Bong-ryeon Lee, Wonhyeong Jang, Seok-Chan Jeon, Ja-Yeon Ok and Joong-ok Lee.

Screenplay by Lee Chang-dong & OH Jung-mi.

Directed by Lee Chang-dong.

Distributed by Well Go USA Entertainment. 148 minutes. Not Rated.

Screened at the 2018 Philadelphia Film Festival.

First impressions: 148 minutes and I felt most of them. In retrospect, maybe that’s because I had just come from watching an earlier movie. Or, maybe my brain hurt because due to the pre-film hype. I felt the need to catalogue the film’s many details in my brain to see how they fit back in to the story.

Maybe I just didn’t see the nuance that so many people do. Or maybe they are reading just too much into this film because they felt the ending was edgy? I’ve heard some wild post-viewing theories that may get me to re-watch the film a second time. My jury is still out.

Burning’s central focus is on Jongsu (played by Yoo Ah-in), a farm boy from the sticks of South Korea, where North Korean propaganda pollutes an otherwise secluded existence. His father is in legal trouble and we learn that Jongsu needs to move back to care for the farm.

At the time that he is due to return to his family home, he runs into Kaemi (played by Jeon Jong-Su). Or rather, she notices him, and recognizes him from her home town where they were neighbors and schoolmates.

But Jongsu seems to remember little of that past. It was a traumatic time for him with his father’s anger issues, mom leaving, and his being forced to burn all of her clothes. Kaemi does also admit to plastic surgery, so perhaps she is physically unrecognizable.

The two reconnect over an evening. Kaemi asks Jongsu to help watch her cat, Boil, while she travels to Africa to see the Bushmen, as she is in search of the meaning of life. So, Kaemi invites Jongsu to her place to meet her cat and learn the ropes. She lives in a room at the top of some stairs. There is a little old lady who lives below, but Kaemi would never ask her to watch her cat because they aren’t supposed to have pets in the building.

Kaemi explains that Boil is very shy and does not come out to new people. The cat does not come out of hiding for the two weeks that Jongsu is watching him, but the food is always gone and there is activity in the litter box. So yeah, the cat exists and is not just a ploy to get Jongsu into her bed. And to then masturbate repeatedly in her room while she is away. You see, Jongsu is in “love” with Kaemi, or rather he can’t stop using her as spank bank material.

Kaemi returns from Africa with Ben (played by Steven Yuen) in tow. It just so happens that they were the only two Koreans in Nairobi stuck through a three-day bomb scare. It’s hard to say whether they are together or not, but Ben does have a nice apartment, a really nice Porsche, and a laissez-faire lifestyle focused on play as work.

From this point forward, pretty much wherever we see Kaemi, we also see Ben. And Kaemi keeps inviting herself back into Jongsu’s life until he explodes with hurtful words and Kaemi disappears. It takes a while for him to get over feeling it is her response to his words and start getting concerned for her welfare.

Now, although this seems like a ridiculous amount of detail to add into an early plot synopsis, this really does capture the level of detail that is the meat and bones of this film.

I can buy into the wild theories only because without them, many of the thematic details are repeated and feel repetitive. Worse, there seem to be a lot of plot holes that can only be filled by the wild theories. I feel that if I share the theories, it will lead to spoilers. Suffice it to say, if you are prepared for a long movie and keep an open mind (and are open to the possibility of needing to watch the film a second time) Burning is likely a film you will want to see. Overall, the characters and their interactions are interesting.

And man, that ending….

Bonnie Paul

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: October 27, 2018.


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