Lee Chang Dong’s ‘Burning’ – a heaven of unconsciousness!

‘Burning’ is a new Korean film by a Korean master Lee Chang Dong, who is well known in North America, for his masterpieces like ‘Poetry’ (2010) ‘Peppermint Candy’ (1999) and the sensitive drama ‘Oasis’ (2002). He returned to film-making with ‘Burning’ after eight years of the gap from his previous film ‘Poetry’(2010). ‘Burning’ is an outstanding psychological drama meant to takes you away from your consciousness of the story. It is a challenging tale reflecting the current socio-economical situation of the youth of Korea and the rest of the world.

Mysterious relationship between protagonists, meditative style cinematography and lesser dialogues made ‘Burning’ a visual and aesthetic treat. The film is loosely based on Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’ also slightly intersecting with William Faulkner’s short story with the same name.

The film is a strong contender of Oscar’s Foreign film category. On the unique treatment of this film In Lee Chang Dong’s words – “I wished to allow viewers to distance themselves from the narrative rather than being plunged into it, to experience the film as an outside observer.”

Picture Curtsy - GrooveKorea
Photo Credits – GrooveKorea.com

So, If we observe from the outside, the first protagonist Jong-Su (effortlessly portrayed by Yoo Ah-in) seems like a frustrated-unemployed recent graduate who aspires to be a writer simultaneously dealing with his bleak future and painful past. His father is in jail due to a misconduct whereas his mother left him 16 years ago. His method of observation and his way of making love while starring at the beam of sunlight told us a lot about the character. Lee Chang-Dong uses efficient visual aesthetic to establish Jong-Su’s character without much words and cinematic tricks.

The Film is set in the ‘Peju’ City which is in the Border region of South Korea. The film opens when Jong-Su met with Hae-mi, his childhood neighborhood friend and a lower-class teenage girl, who is desperately bored from the meaninglessness of life. After a brief interaction with Jong-Su, Hae-mi went to Africa on a trip to search the meaning of her existence.  When returned she narrated her experience of watching the sunset in the dessert in the which resembles the ending of life. She also narrated the idea of small hunger as well as greater hunger. Small hunger is the hunger for food whereas greater Hunger is the hunger for meaning of Life. Lee Chang-Dong used Hae-mi’s character to represent the deep ontological thoughts in relation to the current crises of Eastern civilization.

‘Jean Jong-Seo’ was very efficient in the role of Hae-mi. She portrays the boredom of every teenage girl who is going through the crises of finding the meaning of existence. Her character lives on the verge of social-inequality and absurdity- that makes this film universal and connecting.

In Contrast to these characters,  Steven Yuen’s character ‘Ben’ is more of a rich, mysterious and awakened soul who never experienced sadness in life but constantly been through boredom. He met Hae-mi on the same trip to Africa. Director Lee Chang-Dong reveals another aspect of the story through this character which is-  the idea of Boredom in lower class vs the upper-class Society. Hae-mi introduced Jong-Su to Ben who was surprised by the way lifestyle and richness of Ben. The mystery in Jong-Su’s mind about Ben is the mystery of the Viewer’s mind about the concept of predictability and the meaning of life.

After introducing all characters and their lives, Lee Chang-Dong let the mystery go deepen among them and he grabs the viewer’s attention by only revealing one side of the picture. He invites the audience to fill other gaps. He left many narratives unanswered. That is the power of ‘Burning’ as a piece of cinema.

The film covers the idea of meaningless, boredom and goal-less life of three lead characters who struggle to find what they desire. The film is an excellent representation of transcendence art where the filmmaker use ‘delay approach’ in photography to highlight the idleness of the characters.

Though the film is not an easy watch, it is one of the most important contemplative pieces of Cinema of recent times, inviting the viewer to reflect and to pause. The Film leaves the mystery unanswered but gave you enough to thought upon in the form of underplayed tension among characters, mysterious cat, Hae-mi’s narrative of falling in well and Ben’s income source etc. There are no answers as – life reveals itself without any answers.


  • Gursimran Datla


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