Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) is a not-so-young man in Seoul who can’t seem to grow up. He’s got no job and he wants to be a writer but “I don’t know what to write yet.” (This... is not usually a problem writers have. Too many ideas: that’s the problem writers have.) One day he runs into Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), from his old farming community outside the city. She’s mean and manipulative but cute. And then, after he does her the enormous favor — cheeky of her to even ask this of him, frankly — of watching her cat while she travels to Africa for a few weeks, she arrives home with Ben (Steven Yeun) in tow.
Now, Ben is wealthy and handsome, where Jong-su is poor and plain, and ain’t that the way it always is: girls end up with the bad boys, the rich bastards. And Ben is bad: damn near the first thing he says to Jong-su is that he has never cried, and anyone watching Burning who has the dimmest clue about men and movies (and in real life) knows to take this as a signpost that Ben is a sociopath. Anyone who has the dimmest clue about men and movies (and in real life) knows to take Jong-su’s mooning to mean that he is IN LUUUVE with Hae-mi and is PUT OUT and unfairly treated by this turn of events. She may be mean and manipulative, and he may barely know her; but didn’t she did let him fuck her before she left for Africa? So what if Jong-su fumbled his way awkwardly through the encounter. Isn’t she supposed to be his now?
Oh hey Burning is The Nice Guy’s Complaint done up arthouse South Korean style, with gorgeous cinematography, an unsupportable runtime (two and a half hours), and a plot dragged out from a short story — “Barn Burning,” by Haruki Murakami — that is meant to render Jong-su’s unspoken existential lament as something deep and meaningful. It’s not. It’s the same old male-entitlement crap, only with subtitles and a veneer of consequence about it. There’s, like, a lot of METAPHOR here. Remember Hae-mi waxing rhapsodic over how the Bushman of the Kalahari talk about Little Hunger — the state of literally desiring food — and Great Hunger, or a hankering after the meaning of life? See what Burning did there? Jong-su’s frustrated horniness and thwarted (and perhaps purely hypothetical) creativity is significant.
And yet even as director and cowriter (with Jungmi Oh) Chang-dong Lee think he’s being subtle, so much is absurdly on the nose. “He’s the Great Gatsby,” Jong-su moans about Ben. Yes; yes, he is. “Aren’t all protagonists nuts?” someone says lightly; later we will start to wonder whether some of the dark turns Burning takes are all in Jong-su’s head, or maybe in the In Progress folder on his laptop; maybe he has found the story he wants to write? Maybe all the obvious clichés of Burning are merely the fever dreams of a talentless hack? (That’s not particularly intriguing or enlightening, though, either.)
Meanwhile, as Burning ponders the difference between rich men and poor ones, between smooth dudes and dorky nerds, Hae-mi is a nonentity, a diffuse object of the varying desires of Jong-su and Ben. She’s a manic pixie dream girl who dances topless in the sunset, because she’s a free spirit, or some shit. She is ridiculous and melodramatic and absurdly vulnerable: she falls asleep in public places, for one thing, and — unlike most women — appears to have no female friends whatsoever who might be concerned about the guys she’s hanging out, both of whom would be setting off alarm bells. (This is one thing men always get wrong about the female characters they write: women have fierce champions in their female friends. Not that no woman is ever lonely or friendless, but a woman like Hae-mi without female friends does not feel plausible.) In the eyes of this movie, she is to be protected, or she is to be victimized... and either Jong-su is fantasizing that she is being used and hurt by Ben, or she is really being used and hurt by Ben. Either way, whatever is happening to her is not about her, but about what she means to the men.
The performances here are really terrific — even if, in the case of Jong-seo Jun’s Hae-mi, the movie doesn’t really care about her — and the film does look beautiful. But to what end? Burning has nothing fresh or compelling to say about men’s anger or men’s sadness or men’s feelings of any kind. It merely pretends that yet another depiction of obsessive, unwarranted sexual jealousy on the part of man is somehow noteworthy.
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