In South Korea, youth unemployment rates are rising as billions of dollars of household debt continue to be the reality. Yet, Burning, a film directed by Lee Chang-dong, is as graceful as it is harrowing.

Burning Film Poster. Image courtesy of Well Go USA.

Set in South Korea, its inhabitants face two starkly different realities depending on their circumstances. In one reality, we see the young, beautiful, and very wealthy living a life of extravagance. In another, people suffer lasting hardships from economic turmoil resulting in severe youth unemployment and debt. It is at once incredibly hard to watch and incredibly captivating and remains as such until the very end.

Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) in Burning. Image courtesy of Well Go USA.

The film is a story reflecting the survival of the fittest, a theme that contributes to its ever-increasing anxious energy. The main character, Lee Jong-su, played by actor Yoo Ah-in, is a young deliveryman who randomly runs into a childhood friend. This childhood friend is a young woman named Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), whom the story then centers itself around.

After a brief reminiscing, Jong-su learns that Hae-mi is a gifted pantomime. While Jong-su at first seems to be a passive character, he later takes on a more active role in his life, and both he and Hae-mi experience the ups and downs of emotional extremes in this politically aware film.

Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) in Burning. Photo courtesy of ABC News.

It is only later on that we learn that Hae-mi can make up stories so well that even those closest to her believe them. This revelation serves to grow the enigmatic quality of the film and, in the end, results in more questions left unanswered than otherwise.

“I felt that there was something very cinematic about this story’s mystery,” Lee recalls. “Its mysteries alluded to the world that we live in today, the mysterious world in which we sense that something is wrong, but cannot quite put a finger on what it is.”
Frame from Burning. Image courtesy of The New York Times.

What Jong-su thought to be a romantic possibility is soon lost as Hae-mi acquires an interest in another man, Ben (Steven Yeun), whom she met while travelling. Jong-su later compares this man to The Great Gatsby, sharing that while they know he is young and rich, they don’t know what it is that he does for a living. This is true for viewers as well, as we never find out who Ben really is or how he got his money.

Ben (Steven Yeun) in Burning. Photo courtesy of Burnaway.

The lives of these three individuals become forever intertwined, and each character looks to another in longing and distrust, though they can never seem to identify why they feel this way. Jong-su, Haemi and Ben all have secrets to keep, and they all have an inexplicable relationship with fire stemming from past experiences — a relationship that gave the film its title.

Jong-su, Haemi, and Ben in Burning. Photo courtesy of Vogue.

Cinematically depicting ordinary people caught up in both emotional and social extremes, Burning not only touches, but deeply explores Decent Work and Economic Growth and Reduced Inequalities, two of the seventeen United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

As the Global Goals website states, “Too much of the world’s wealth is held by a very small group of people. This often leads to financial and social discrimination.” This fact could not be more evident in the film. Ben’s social circle, himself included, is composed of such individuals who hold this type of wealth. On the other side of the spectrum, Jong-su and Hae-mi reflect the larger group of the less fortunate, the estranged and largely unhappy individuals.

Frame from Burning. Image courtesy of Criterion.

Adapted from the short story “Barn Burning” written by Haruki Murakami, Burning is a film that oscillates between a metaphysical thriller and an emotional drama just as it oscillates between scenes in Seoul and those in the Korean countryside. Shocking brutality peaks through moments that are otherwise calm and almost beautiful. In the end, it is the consuming economic desperation that drives the ongoing conflict and results in tragedy.

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