Burning ★★★½


There's something very slippery about Burning, and to look at it, there really shouldn't be. From shot to shot and scene to scene, this is an incredibly concrete film, frequently gathering its power from the hard pictorial solidity of a tree looming over a particular character, or the almost tangible colors of the sky at dusk. In fact, one of the dominant visual metaphors of Lee's film is the unavoidable contrast between the slick, shiny Porsche and the rust-bucket farm truck, and how they exemplify their respective owners, Ben (Steven Yuen) and Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in).

And yet, there is a kind of abstract drift that dominates Burning. It's not just that there's a kind of minor mystery at its center -- first who the love object, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) really is, and then where she goes. It's that even as individual scenes have a concrete quality to them, they all seem to float alongside one another, like lilypads on the surface of a lake. Numerous subplots and incidents "go nowhere" in the conventional sense, although they do all amount to an impressionistic sense of turmoil for Jong-su, a life defined by losses that have become so normalized that they seem incremental.

Inasmuch as there is a primary narrative engine within Burning, it is the tension between Jong-su and Ben, which is initially a mutual jealousy over Hae-mi, but soon becomes a mixture of class resentment and homoerotic anxiety. Ben is the implacable mirror in which Jong-su sees all his desires fulfilled, but there is a maddening lack of affect that implicitly mocks Jong-su's life-long desperation.

Steven Yuen is brilliant in this role, demonstrating that what we conceive of as evil is usually just the absence of recognizable human emotion. And if the conclusion of Burning provides a rather obvious Freudian destination to Jong-su's journey, it can be excused in part for its uncanny visual logic. He left quite a lot of himself in the flames, reverting to a near infantile state.

I think that slipperiness I spoke of above might be partly atrributable to the process of adapting Haruki Murakami. In the past, Lee's films, at least since Peppermint Candy, have always been highly accomplished but have felt "literary," in a kind of schematic, overdetermined way. This tendency hit its apex with Poetry, the sense that human behavior and narrative events were conforming to an overall thematic design.

By contrast, Burning follows Murakami's elliptical, indirect method of worldbuilding. Negative space is crucial, and to some extent it invites cinematic interpretation. Burning doesn't snap into place. It accumulates, like leaves.

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