Burning ★★★½

Burning is my second Lee Chang-dong film, after Secret Sunshine; he seems to me an uneven filmmaker who reaches quite powerful effects in sometimes clumsy, sometimes even distasteful ways. Burning, like the earlier film, has a delirium-inducing approach to narrative and length, constantly shifting and changing until you feel uncertain about what you’re seeing and what you’ve seen. It would seem that in it's thriller adjacent material Lee has a fitting subject for his style, but I think actually the more concrete exploration of grief in Secret Sunshine provided a good focal point, whereas in this film the mystery can become so overwhelming as to feel weightless. As well as the feeling that the character’s are extremely shallow, there’s also a sort of cheap nastiness to the conception of Haemi, who fulfils a sort of patriarchal fantasy, and Ben (Lee’s late attempt to rehabilitate this character is one of the least imaginative sections of the film). Accepting the film is lost in Jong-Soo’s point of view, the next question is why Lee would put us in such an unpleasant headspace. I think the queasiness this position provokes is offset by the feeling induced by the images and concepts through which Lee evokes feelings of Jong-Soo’s trauma and dissociation throughout the film. Such striking moments as Jong-Soo staring at the wall during the first sex scene, or Lee focusing on birds in the background of the shot rather than the main character come to mind. Extended passages where Jong-Soo becomes obsessed with discovering the meaning of the motifs the film is structured around, especially as the image of the greenhouse recurs again and again, strike me as strongly self-reflexive and thrillingly uncomfortable. I don’t think Lee tries too hard to sway us towards any particular interpretation of why Jong-Soo’s psychology is the way it is, though his parents emerge as potential suspects as does the general state of Korea. Predominantly though, the film succeeds through the breakdown of an unpleasant fiction to reveal an unstable mind.

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