The faint Gatsby
‘Burning’ is a labored generational critique that tries your patience
Yoo Ah-in, Jong-seo Jeon, and Steven Yeun in “Burning”
For all its ominous portent, “Burning” barely flickers. A tedious thriller without many thrills, the latest from acclaimed South Korean auteur Lee Chang-Dong is too much of a slow-burn for its own good.
Manipulation and jealousy swirl around a puzzling love triangle in this would-be mystery that amounts to a dark, plodding cautionary tale with ambitions of striking a salient Millennial allegory. Jong-su, a mostly-aimless but aspiring young writer, bumps into a childhood acquaintance named Hae-mi in a busy marketplace. He doesn’t recognize the beautiful, grown-up woman in front of him. Hae-mi says she’s had cosmetic surgery, and that Jong-su once teased her for being ugly.
After an ad-hoc date, they hook up. Slowly, one begins to wonder if Hae-mi is sincere or staging a long-con revenge trap. Is she even who she says she is, or possibly some sexpot sociopath that’s pegged Jong-su as a gullible mark? This all sounds compelling—and it is, particularly in how he falls under her spell, but it drags on with meandering, lethargic filler over the film’s first half hour.
Jong-su pines for Hae-mi while she’s away on a trip to Africa but is blindsided when she returns with a man, Ben—a rich, attractive enigma she met on the flight. The three become a social trio with loosely-defined relationships, though Hae-mi’s flirtations turn squarely to Ben, leaving Jong-su as a humored third wheel.
You wait for the story’s hooks to dig in, but they never do. Instead, more layers, undercurrents, and psychological intrigue emerge—but it’s not the ambiguity that’s bad; it’s the languid pacing. There’s a taught 90-minute nail-biting head-trip somewhere inside this two-and-a-half hour grind, but that padding obfuscates the film’s plot, tone, suspense, and ideas.
Chang-Dong is clearly trying to get at something here, principally in its overtly-referenced Great Gatsby dynamic with Ben as the shady affluent, Hae-mi the self-absorbed wannabe socialite, and Jong-su as a Nick Carraway archetype who, rather than being in awe of the privilege around him, is bitter and lost.
The film scrutinizes modern class disparities within Millennial culture, along with the toxic male pathologies they trigger. This is best laid out in in Hae-mi’s distinction between “Little Hunger” and “Great Hunger,” which become Chang-Dong’s thesis. Little Hunger speaks to the practical pangs of needing food for the body, but Great Hunger refers to the existential yearning of the soul. “Burning” tries to speak to the latter but, instead, merely leaves us with it.
It’s all caricatured and contrived, with each person a generational stereotype in a fable of bloated, empty pretense. There’s a simmering ennui inside Jong-su but it’s also abstract; present, but without a foundation or core. There are haunting, provocative images, too—but like everything else here, they’re ephemeral and fleeting.
Ultimately, you’re either on Chang-Dong’s tempo or you’re not. If you are, you’ll find yourself mesmerized. If not, “Burning” will be an interminable slog, perpetually teasing a payoff that, when belatedly delivered, frustrates rather than satisfies. Indeed, Jong-su receives something near the end that proves to be the film’s most apt metaphor: a soulless, unsatisfying jerk-off.