A fire needs three things to burn: fuel, oxygen, and heat. All three are ever present, and Burning is interested more in the lead-up to the perfect conditions for ignition than it is the spectacle of the fire and flame itself. That is not to say it is a story without satisfactory pay-offs, but the power of this film lies very much in the journey where every faint glow and spark among the tinder teases what is to come next until it escalates to a point of no return.
Coming under just shy of two and a half hours, Lee Chang Dong’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” is a rich piece of work that is in no rush to reach the next narrative beat. The story opens with a chance encounter where our protagonist Jongsu meets childhood-friend Haemi. A relationship quickly blooms only for Haemi to depart for Africa whereupon returning introduces to the story her new partner, an elusive “Gatsby” as Jongsu describes who goes by Ben. This sets up their dynamic for the film, and it is one which is not solely defined by romantic competition. Much of the setting is defined by a sense of class consciousness which serves as the subtext of the film and this is inseparable from the surface plot. Jongsu’s loneliness and desire for intimacy is juxtaposed against the content, bourgeois lifestyle of Ben for whom empathy is a curiosity. Jongsu himself representing the working class and his search for meaning in life is shared by Haemi, their collective precarity coalescing in a stunning scene at the film’s midpoint.
The film offers plenty to chew on as far as these themes and its character goes. Combined with a plot imbued with just the right amount of ambiguity to leave us questioning our perception but also providing answers by its conclusion, Burning is an excellent portrayal of youth navigating an uncertain life.