Burning (2018)

Review #1,587

Director:  Lee Chang-dong
Cast:  Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, Jeon Jong-seo
Plot:  Jong-soo, a part-time worker, bumps into Hae-mi while delivering, who used to live in the same neighborhood.  Hae-mi asks him to look after her cat while she's on a trip to Africa.  When Hae-mi comes back, she introduces Ben, a mysterious guy she met in Africa, to Jong-soo.  

Genre:  Drama / Mystery
Awards:  Won FIPRESCI Prize & Grand Technical Prize (Cannes)
Runtime:  148 mins
Rating:  M18 (passed clean) for sexual scene
Internatonal Sales:  Finecut
Singapore Distributor:  Clover Films

Lee Chang-dong, my favourite South Korean director and arguably the country’s finest working filmmaker, returns with another hypnotic gem, eight years after the 2010 Cannes Best Screenplay winner, Poetry.  Since his breakthrough with what I still think is his crowning achievement—the extraordinary Peppermint Candy (1999)—every single work of his henceforth had been consistently superb.  

Adapting from Haruki Murakami’s 1983 short story “Barn Burning” (published in his 1993 collection, “The Elephant Vanishes”), Lee transforms the story’s intrigue into an enigmatic mystery centering on a trio of characters—Jong-soo (Yoo Ah-in), Ben (Steven Yeun) and Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo).  Jong-soo chances upon an old classmate in the pretty Hae-mi, whose flirtatious personality arouses him (as an ordinary working-class young man with a lonely existence, this is something akin to striking the lottery).  But when Hae-mi returns from a trip to Africa with Ben, who’s rich and boyishly handsome, psychological games between the two men begin and intensify, or so Jong-soo seems to feel.  

Running at 2 ½ hours, Burning could be a lengthy challenge for audiences not accustomed to Lee’s patient approach, but the splendid performances from the main cast should sustain your attention despite extended scenes of intended stasis—but these long stretches following Jong-soo (as he runs around the countryside near his home) in his desire to unravel a deepening mystery combine to form one of Lee’s most intoxicating sequences.  

One must mention the breathtaking cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo (Mother, 2009; The Wailing, 2016), and in one sequence of utter sublime beauty, he shoots with a few long takes the trio of characters against the setting sun in an enveloping darkness (one could even appreciate how daring it is to technically execute these shots against a startling lack of light).  Much earlier, in an allusion to Secret Sunshine (2007), there is a moment as Joon-soo stares blankly at a ray of sunlight cast upon a wooden shelf, which is also the first time Mowg’s faintly brooding original score (primarily featuring a bassy rhythm with hand percussion) is heard—I must admit that this was a ‘Lee Chang-dong geek-out’ moment for me.

The defining quality of Lee’s work, however, comes in his dexterous handling of both narrative and psychological ambiguity, and this is something that should impress even more with repeated viewings.  It is sometimes common to see arthouse films be ambiguous for the sake of artistic legitimacy (though more often than not, their inscrutability can be a pretense for a lack of quality), but in Burning, Lee does something quite rare—he allows his work to be freely intertwined within its range of ambiguities such that no matter how one tries to explain the mystery’s peculiarities with plausible interpretations, it just gets stranger and more haunting.   

Verdict:  An enigmatic mystery that patiently develops and then becomes deeply-intertwined within its ambiguities, in what is another hypnotic gem by South Korea’s finest working filmmaker.




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