Burning ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


My second Lee Chang-dong film. Had read Haruki Murakami's short story "Barn Burning" months before viewing this, and I'm more marveling in the fact that writer-director Lee Chang-dong, along with Jungmi Oh, have taken a twenty-page story and grafted onto it such massive augmentation, adding onto a story whose primary scene is the 'sometimes I burn barns' revelation (here reassociated to greenhouses), which is just as odd and brilliant there as it is on film.

Do wish there was more room for ambiguity in certain areas (seen some bemoan the presence of the watch and the cat), and while these elements still supply a means to arrive at polysemic conclusions, there is one explanatory destination that shouts the loudest I would imagine to those who take more pleasure in being handed answers—though I'm more apt to believe everything was a series of tragically woven happenstance.

Absolutely superb direction here by Lee; his previous film Secret Sunshine being a passively paced narrative of equal profundity, albeit with a more melodramatic curve. Had no idea where this was going for a long time, and it almost seems silly to likely repeat what may be a tired pun (I mean, surely this has already been done), but Burning is the best kind of slow burn in that the tension is administered in microscopic doses as the film progresses, like we're stuck to an IV drip whose medicine is unease and fretfulness—most of the praise here directed to the wonderfully, offputtingly charming performance by Steven Yeun (as Ben) who has turned in one of the very best performances of last year.

Of course, the major thematic takeaway from this would be the socioeconomic divide, along with the generation gap by way of Jong-su's parents (primarily his mother, who seems more concerned with her phone than reconnecting with an estranged son over lunch—a sort of generational role reversal) and the literal geographic divide between North and South Korea (Jong-su's country home being located so close to the DMZ that he can hear North Korean propaganda on loudspeakers while his television seems to pick up their programs, overly sensationalized news programs stating 94% of Americans approve of Trump... which could, by extension, be a criticism of South Korea's own government by way of the impeachment of Park Geun-hye back in 2016), but I'm more concerned with the theme of loneliness (a primary motif in Murakami's short story) and social detachment (wallflowering) in Jong-su's character.

He is handsome, yet meek and cautiously apprehensive to others. After a sexual encounter with Hae-mi—who leaves on a trip the next day, leaving Jong-su in the care of her perhaps nonexistent cat—he masturbates in her apartment frequently, ostensibly aching for more human contact. Not to mention his cruel father and rough upbringing. All this fueling into the creeping suspicion that rises and rises throughout the film, bursting into a single act of devastating impulsiveness.

As a brief digression, two scenes of superlative execution: the dancing in the sunset which leads to a conversation of peak unsettlement in the arsonist hobby divulgence, and in the first twilight jog in the countryside as Jong-su searches for charred greenhouses—backgrounded by a lovely, droning, heartbeat-like score—to confirm his suspicions.

The film does take a while to secure its footing in the opening act, and there are a couple of scenes that seem more superfluous than narratively constructive, but Burning generates smoldering, ever-fermenting intensity with an outstanding cast of players and individualist direction (love how Lee operates the focus here, racking from foreground to background, from character to character situated in differing positions in the depth of the frame) that makes this (as of the writing of this review) my favorite of 2018.

As an expendable footnote: this film feels like the semblant offspring of the styles of Antonioni and Zvyagintsev, and that is a welcoming thought.

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