Burning ★★★★½

The concepts of "Little Hunger" - a drive for temporary satisfaction or fulfillment - and "Great Hunger" - a search for a greater, existential fulfillment - are repeated as a guiding motif in Burning. But where does something like "hangriness" come in? That feeling of needing sustenance, needing nourishment, but being so disoriented by that need that you do not know how to go about accomplishing it. In interviews for the film, director Chang-dong Lee has spoken about how growing youthful anger was a guiding theme in making the film, which seems to hit at the latter, even if it is not overtly verbalized in the film. Each of the core trio, in one way or another, fall into that intermediate zone between the "Little" and the "Great," aimlessly disoriented by their place in society.

For Jong-su Lee, this is depicted in Yoo Ah-in's apathetic, shuffling, dumbstruck performance. Lee has been left - like a lot of post-collegiate twenty-somethings - uncertain about which path to take next; if anything, he seems overwhelmed. Instead, Lee lazily latches onto any minor possibility that seems attainable and promising. The possibility of a romance with Hae-mi presents itself and Lee appears interested, but pursues it with a minimum of energy; all he can muster is taking care of her (Schrödinger's) cat and masturbating to her memory.

Hae-mi, almost an opposite to Lee, searches for transcendence everywhere; she's a complete free spirit that tries to hold onto the moment (drifting a bit too close to manic pixie dreamgirl territory, at times). She remade herself based on a passing comment from Lee during their childhood, possibly in search of epiphany through the recognition of affection.

And Ben, who has attained a form of "Little Hunger" by way of his (inherited?) wealth, seems to be searching for a connection with authenticity or a more humble life. He dates working class women (maybe to feel grounded?), but is ultimately bored by them and he speaks of burning greenhouses for the thrill of being caught/seen (though, this may be more of a hypothetical, than something he puts into action).

Which brings up the other connection between them and maybe the greater dilemma of the film. In the first act, Hae-mi performs a pantomime, suggesting that what is unseen or not there can be just as affecting as that which is seen. Director Lee echoes this throughout the film (the well, the cat, Hae-mi's disappearance, Lee's mother), things whose lack of visibility does not negate their impact on a character's actions. And, in a way, all three of the leads have become invisible to Korean society, their desires overlooked in favor of a system that wishes to plug them into alienating roles (laborer, citizen of wealth, sex object). Only when something is seen, truly seen and believed in as Hae-mi stresses, can it be affecting and effective. However, what goes unrecognized for too long often responds violently to finally being noticed.

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