Film Review: Burning (2018)

Title: Burning

Director: Lee Chang-dong

Starring: Ah-In Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jun

Duration: 2h 28m

Relevant info: This is a South Korean film, released on September 2018 and based on a short story titled ‘Barn Burning’ written by Haruki Murakami.

The Plot

Let’s start with the very basics. I am not one for major spoilers so I will give you the gist of it.

Working class boy (Jong Soo) walking in Seoul. Classic story of boy meets girl (Hae-mi) Well, not so much. Yes, there is a story and yes THE SEX happens but right after she takes off. It is a love story but it is so much more than this so don’t grab the tissues just yet. Hae- mi returns from her trip but she is now an item with Mr.  ‘I’m so easy- going showered in my wealth’, Ben.  Sprinkles of jealousy are implied from the side of Jong Soo who -I have to admit-  on a day to day basis appears (mind the verb here) OK and going about his life, which is not mellow by the way.  Ben exhibits some peculiar attitude disrupting his coolness (because what is the point of being rich if you do not have a secret?) something happens, something happens (told you, no spoilers) and there is also a cat. Damn it’s a beautiful cat.

The Juice

This is a film for which you need to have plenty of time and not only because of its duration.  It almost definitely will stick on your mind for a while after the end, so do use the time to process it a bit. Personally, it took me some time to get used to the idea that there was not an obvious (or at least to me) answer to the incident that drove the second part of the film, even if I had realized from the start that this was never the true point of the film.

That being said, I would suggest that you focus on the metaphors and details which are playing out during the film, both obvious and hidden ones.  Many things are left unsaid, maybe vaguely implied and this different approach from the Western cinema I have been used to , really built a pressing atmosphere. Pressing in the good sense that a psychological thriller ought to offer. At some point you will need to abandon logic and judgment, not due to anything supernatural but in order to allow yourself to get lost into the minds of the heroes. Burning is quite the internal process in this case, so be prepared for some soul searching… in other people’s misery.

Another noteworthy point is that the female lead, Hae mi, is omnipresent even during her absence. That is right, she is not present throughout the film. You will shortly come to understand that every action might reflect her influence over the hero (and I do not say heroeS for a reason) but their actions are not necessarily driven by her. Indeed, the plot ignites the story but there is a lot more than this to focus on, such as the inner passions of all three protagonists, their secret desires and fears as well as existential struggles. Sounds dark and it is but it unfolds in a way that will not bring you down in the end. In terms of representation, Hae- mi seems a bit all over the place and somewhat naive but this is a very superficial impression, one you will quickly change if you dig a bit deeper in her character. Hae – mi is romantic but she is also a strong young woman. She needs to make a living and survive and she does that no matter what. She is also liberated in a way that initially seems like she is simply an attention seeker when in fact but she is nothing but a wanderer of her own self and of the world. She is liberated in a way that the other two men cannot be. If you refrain from judging the character I promise you it will unveil itself to you in many ways.

I am still debating myself about the finale. Was I expecting this kind of closure? No. Was I suspecting the finale? Perhaps I did. Do I think that the end could have been slightly different or even better that this? I certainly do although I have not managed to decide what the ideal ending would have been for me . This is not necessarily bad, it is a game for the imagination.

The verdict

Overall, a slow but rewarding film, worthy of your time. The pace is wisely calculated, the actors are exceptional as is the cinematography. Definitely a film to be included on your list.

Watch the trailer

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