Burning brilliantly blurs the line between reality and imagination

Lee Chang-dong’s new mystery drama Burning might seem like a superficial love triangle at first, but it unravels into a surreal, slow-burning narrative about obsession, reality versus dreams, and class divides in Korea. 

The film follows a young writer named Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) living in country town Paju who runs into Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), his childhood neighbour that he doesn’t initially recognise. Jong-su quickly falls for her, but after a trip to Africa, she introduces him to Ben (Steven Yeun) who is cultured and wealthy, a contrast to Jong-su’s modest, slightly scruffy appearance. The screenplay may be based on Barn Burning, a short story by Haruki Murakami, but setting it in current day South Korea reframes the entire conversation.
The film uses Yong-su and Ben to show the stark differences between the lower class world and fast-developing city centre in Korea, as well as the young people that come with it. Particularly striking is the production design: Yong-su’s father’s house is rusted, messy and old-fashioned, and when we are invited into Ben’s central apartment, the minimal decorations and polished, Western-style furniture is almost alarming.
Their personalities also lay on either end of the spectrum. Yeun (of Walking Dead fame) is hot and cold as the effortlessly charming Ben. At his best, his eyes are chillingly vacant when he smiles, and at his worst, he is stale and contrived, especially when he is tasked with some of the film’s more metaphorical lines. On the other hand, Yoo is incredible at portraying a reclusive and nervous working class boy who is driven mad by jealousy. He is mousey but open-faced, and as time passes, the audience can feel his frantic paranoia reach boiling point.
While the women in Murakami’s stories are often two-dimensional and oversexualised, Lee gives Hae-mi a newfound freedom and complexity in Burning. She’s not perfect, but her desire and search for meaning in life comes across as profound and moving. In the film’s most enchanting moment, Hae-mi undresses and dances to Miles Davis against the backdrop of a vivid countryside sunset, crying as the sky slowly dims. We, the audience, are both touched and startled at her sudden emotional response and Jeon is amazing at carrying all the weight of someone who wants to live and yet simultaneously vanish from existence.
And this is what Burning does best: blur the lines between reality and what’s been imagined. We, along with Jong-su, begin to doubt our memories and what we know about both Hae-mi and Ben. Was any of it real? Lee never gives us a solid answer.