RivoliPalace’s review published on Letterboxd:
Everything occurs inside of thought. We cannot think of anything outside of consciousness simply because if we can think then it is in conscious. This is the basis of director Lee Chang-don’s “Burning”. Thoughts can burn into our beings with relentless tenacity as to constantly reinforce negative thinking no matter how we try to explain ourselves. His film moves at the pace with which your hair and nails are growing. That is the speed of deep pondering doubting thought.
Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a delivery man. He crosses paths with a former childhood acquaintance Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-so) at a delivery stop. She is fast to recognize him and engage him with the Hae-mi attack. Through a forgotten memory she sparks his interest in her. She invites him to dinner and he accepts. During their discourse she demonstrates how she is studying pantomime. He is leaning in to her. She knows this and invites him back to her flat. They have sex, he maybe for his first time and she being the initiator. In the clumsy aftermath she tells Jong-su that she is going to Africa for a trip and asks him to feed and care for her cat, Boil. He agrees although neither he nor we ever see her feline. He undertakes the task as Hae-mi has thrown some sunlight into his mundane life.
Time passes and Hae-mi returns with Ben (Steven Yeun) calling in another request to Jong-su. Meet her at the airport for transportation. Again, he agrees but he is visibly dismayed at the presence of Ben. She now seemingly fixated on her new found friend. They were the only two Koreans in Nairobi.
The intimate budding relationship now has a new dynamic. Ben is affluent In appearance with no apparent occupation. When asked by Jong-su what he does Ben replies “I play”, thus giving us more to think about. In our minds we can see what is happening here. Someone is being played but whom and where will it lead?
It’s interesting to me that the dynamic of the relationships develops with each location change of interaction by one or all three of the primary players. At Jong-su’s fathers farm the three smoke pot. Hae-mi falls asleep and the two men fall into deep conversation. Ben revealing an unusual obsession of his but is it really a metaphor explained in a way that Jong-Su can grasp? Either because he aspires to be a writer or because he is relatively simple and lacks true ambition. He quickly exits a job interview. (Who hasn’t wanted to do that?). Either way, Ben has planted a thought. It festers and Jong-su takes the bait. We do too!
When one member of this triad mysteriously disappears the film spins a tighter entanglement that corrupts logical thinking. Bizarre incidents that include the cat “Boil” and the pink wrist watch that was the acknowledgment gesture Jong-su graced Hae-mi with at their first interaction. These seemingly innocent discoveries continue to stoke the burning in Jong-su’s developing suspicions. It will ultimately incinerate his ability to be rational and switch him to emotional. He is alive now, not just existing.
Director Lee has created a work of pondering intelligence. This is the nature of human interactions when we let our guard down based on growing perceptions that never fully realize what we desire. The lasting impression is conflict. All actions come down to motive. We are left to ponder the burn and sting of being used, being lied to and having our thoughts discounted to someone’s peril. In Korean with English sub-titles.