I honestly had no idea what to expect from Burning, up until the credits started to roll. Although there are moments that the movie seems to resemble others, or starts to conform to genre conventions, this may all be red herrings and MacGuffins to the overall film experience. And I truly believe that the experience director Chang-dong Lee intended audiences to have is one of questions, not answers. It is fitting that the inciting incident of the film’s narrative involves the house-sitting of a cat that never shows itself. Many who have debated the meaning of the movie have argued the possibility that the cat doesn’t exist at all. I believe that the point is that the cat both exists and doesn’t exist, because the film itself feels like a cinematic representation of Schrödinger’s cat.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The basic premise for the film is simple, so much that its description doesn’t do it justice. The story is told nearly entirely from the perspective of Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), a detached young man struggling to find work in modern South Korean society. While working a part time job, Jong-su encounters a woman named Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), who knows him from their childhood, despite his having no recollection of this. After a brief encounter, Hae-mi asks Jong-su to cat-sit while she goes away on a trip to
After sleeping together before she leaves, Jong-su becomes enamored with Hae-mi, spending more time than needed at her place and clearly longing for her return. Unfortunately, she returns in the company of Ben (Steven Yeun), a man that is a clear counterpart to everything that Jong-su represents in society. Wealthy and worldly, Ben also seems to have the attention of Hae-mi, but he seems oddly preoccupied with Jong-su. This bizarre love triangle goes on for a portion of the film, until a mystery slowly unfolds.
The most apt comparison I can make to Burning would be to say that it is somewhat like a modern Hitchcockian thriller, but without clear answers to the mystery at the center of the narrative. It is a slow burn at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, but the filmmaking is always interesting. Scenes are unsettling long before it is clear why, and the filmmaking itself is something to examine for clues. This is the type of film that many will complain about, because very little actually occurs, but those who really watch movies will find that there is far more than meets the eye. Simplistic as it may be, Burning is the type of movie that will leave you thinking for days. In short, it is a treat for true cinephiles, while it is likely to frustrate the average viewer.
The Blu-ray release also comes with a DVD copy of the film. The only extra is a featurette about the characters, along with trailers. With a film this ambiguous, I’m sure that some would have preferred a commentary track explaining some of the intention behind it. Personally, I think it is better this way.
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 10/10
Historical Significance: 8.5/10
Special Features: 3/10