claira curtis’s review published on Letterboxd:
“You’re not asking what the problem was?”
“There are always problems.”
One thing that I’ve found that Burning does well is it ensures that a rewatch will lead to a deeper appreciation for the complexities it holds. My first watch left me deeply intrigued but there is a lot to chew on and I don’t think I was fully prepared for the work of processing it all at the time. Going into my rewatch, I was eager to really lean into the full weight of Lee Chang-dong’s latest and that paid off in tenfold. So much so that upon this watch, I’ve bumped Burning from a 4/5 to a 5/5.
I find that Burning leaves me with a lot to say, my mind racing in that almost insanity like frenzy that comes exclusively for a truly, at its core, phenomenal film. I’ll try to keep myself as condensed as I can here but no promises.
What I felt myself noticing the most here was the various ways Chang-dong exhibits classism amongst the three leads. In literal ways, through bringing the audience into each character’s home, various social situations, and in the way each character dresses. Each provides a new spark sent into the pile of kindling, tension brimming up from the moment the film starts until its climactic end. But there’s also a much more subtle way that the classism is depicted that I found really interesting to witness. Ben and Jong are clearly at odds throughout the film, and as such, in moments where the two are the central focus of the scene, it feels especially apparent they come from vastly different worlds. When Jong accompanies Ben and Hae-mi to dinner parties with Ben’s friends or to restaurants, Jong sticks out like a sore thumb, an outsider, peering into a world that doesn’t truly have the space for him. Even in a time where Ben and Hae-mi visit Jong at his childhood home, somewhere where Ben should be the one sticking out amongst the rural setting, Jong still feels like the odd man out. Ben’s luxurious lifestyle ensures a comfortability that is not static, but rather chameleon-like. He fits in regardless of location or situation simply because he wants to. Jong’s lack of status, and the insecurity that accompanies that, cements his position as beneath, both because others view him in such a way, and because he seems to view himself in the same regard.
Hae-mi, our central female character, and arguably the core of this story, is in a unique middle ground. She comes from the same place as Jong but her beauty and femininity play a vital role in the ways that she is perceived through this classist viewpoint, allowing her to flick between the two in a way that comes across as effortless despite it requiring a great deal of effort. For while she is similar to Ben in that the two seem to be able to exist in both lower and higher society, Ben’s ability is akin to a birthright while Hae-mi’s comes across as much more fragile a standing. Her place is completely reliant on her beauty and her entertainment value to the moment. She’s humored in her dances, her narcolepsy, her musings about existence in part because of her beauty and in part because who doesn’t like a charming woman hanging on your arm?
It’s a fascinating depiction and while I’ve expressed a lot of my thoughts on the matter, there’s still so much more I could say.
The one other thing I wanted to highlight, because I found it so interesting, particularly in how I missed it on my first watch, was the interactions between Ben and Jong throughout the film. At various stages of the story, Steven Yeun conveys these subtle expressions, a raising of the eyebrows, a yawn, a sly smirk, all while holding eye contact with Jong. Depending on how you look at the two, the exchanges can feel teasing, taunting, or like an attempt to bond. It adds an enticing layer to the complexities of the two men and how central their insecurities about the other result in an intertwining that feels claustrophobic and destructive.
I appreciate also how crucial Hae-mi’s character is to the story, despite her having the least amount of screen time amongst the three leads. Her character, in a way, reminds me a bit of a “manic pixie dream girl”. But in a way that builds rather than destroys her appeal in my eyes. I’m still working through my thoughts on that specifically but I found the depiction of her sexuality and her existentialism both deeply compelling and particularly fascinating when brought alongside the complexities of the story at large.
An all around invigorating film. I have so much I could say, I haven’t even brought up how wondrous the technical elements are here and how massively they effect the overall unease and suspicion the audience experiences throughout. I’m cutting myself off because I know I’ve written a lot already but man oh man! I am so thrilled I was able to give Burning more of my time and attention.
“She makes up stories really well. Her stories are very believable.”