The South Korean thriller “Burning” written and directed by Lee Chang-dong is a masterfully crafted suspense drawer that holds sweltering tension as it unfolds with beguiling mystery. In the era of the Me Too movement, political correctness, and our cultured being lectured that everything about masculinity is toxic, we are now seeing films with more complex and vulnerable men who’s masculinity is being stripped away from them within moments in a film.
Whether it’s a film like “Mandy” starring Nicholas Cage as almost like a knight trying to avenge the death of his princess, or Lyne Ramsey’s “You Were Never Really Here” where Joaquin Phoenix’s character Joe’s primeval nature is finally unleashed, yet instead of these films portraying the men characters as just being nebbish or cowards, these filmmakers are exploring and showing how strength, courage, and even defense is within human nature, and that these are traits that will never be suppressed or swept away in the filmic sense.
Take for instance in the film “Burning” where the main protagonist Lee Jong-Su (Yoo Ah-in) comes of almost like a stoic and overly masculine archetype only within a few scenes we see his masculinity suddenly stripped away after he runs into an old childhood neighbor and classmate Shin Hae-Mi whom he doesn’t recognize at first. She proposes that they get dinner together, and he shows great interest in her at first. She even held a crush on Jong-Su when they were younger, but he constantly ignored her. She reveals to him that she is taking a trip to Africa, and she asks him to feed her cat while she’s gone.
Jong-su ends up feeding the cat named Boil, even though we never see it. Hae-Mi ends up returning from Africa after she gets stuck at the Nairobi Airport for three days after terrorist warnings. She returns back with Ben played by Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun in an electrifying and menacing performance that deserves serious attention in this years Oscar Best Supporting Race.
This instantly drags Jong-Su down and brings out his insecurities, vulnerabilities, and the situation completely strips away his masculinity as he attempts to recapture his strength as a mystery begins to unfold once Hae-Mi mysteriously disappears with no trace. This happens after Jong-Su is threatened by Ben after an unexpected visit at his father’s small farm property, where they drink and smoke pot. Ben tells Jong-Su that his hobbies include burning down greenhouses to the ground.
Jong-su learns that Ben burns a greenhouse once about every other month, that it’s almost time for another burning.
It wouldn’t dare to say any more, since Lee goes to great lengths to preserve the austere mystery of Murakami’s short story titled “Barn Burning” that is also based on a William Faulkner short story of the same name , although he goes for a very unsettling and deeply unforgettable ending that will leave your jaw dropping.
Lee’s greatest achievement is his artistry where he shows the dichotomy and contrast between the old world of farming, poverty, high youth unemployment facing off against the new world of technology, consumerism, and materialism that Ben represents.
Overall, “Burning” is a film that takes it’s time to reveal and unfold, but the small details that do unfold are a lot to process, and the film leaves a great impression on the mind as one connects the story together. “Burning” is a film that will truly plague the viewers minds upon viewing.