Sumptuously shot and meticulously paced, Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong's Burning concerns a young writer reunited with a quirky, effusive woman from his childhood, for who he immediately falls. She then returns from a trip to Africa with a wealthy, mysterious young man in tow.
The film is undeniably gorgeous, strewn with sequences of pure cinematic verve – a jazzy, drunken dance break, a greenhouse engulfed in flames. The film's sweltering tension and commitment to its lack of easy answers is commendable, but less so is its treatment of women. The character of Hae-mi while well-performed is let down by writing that paints her as the worst kind of male-driven sexual fantasy. She only really exists to develop the male characters' arcs and to allow the camera to artfully leer over her.
For a film of such lofty ambitions and an evident desire to dig into themes of toxic male sexual obsession, its women aren't afforded their own agency.
Narratively, the film runs out of steam in the second half, resolving its mysteries in a way that feels unearned. We exit Burning unsatisfied, and not necessarily in the way the filmmakers intended, its glimpses of profundity blazing brightly before disappearing all too quickly.
Steven Yeun, Yoo Ah-in, Jun Jong-seo
M (Violence, sex scenes, nudity and drug use)
Moments of utter beauty let down by problematic storytelling.