Burning ★★★★½

Burning is a meditation on disaffected youth that gradually morphs into a taut, slow-burn thriller that ratchets up the tension until it explodes with one of the greatest final scenes of 2018.

It is a difficult film to describe, as its main premise doesn't entirely reveal itself until about an hour into its epic 2.5 hour run time. But at its core, it is the story of Jong-su running into his childhood friend Hae-mi as he begins to work at his father's farm. Jong-su becomes close to Hae-mi before she leaves on a trip to Africa, but when she returns, it is with a mysterious, wealthy, older man named Ben in tow.

The narrative is densely layered with complex themes, touching on everything from class and generational differences to the different forms of masculinity. But the most interesting topic the film delves into is its exploration of the existence of truth. If we have been told that a cat lives in a room, and can see its evidence by the appearance of waste and disappearance of food, can we definitively say that the cat exists without ever seeing it? Now expand the cat to a person's entire life. How can you judge the truth of a person's memories, if there is no evidence to back them up? And can you judge a person's true intentions by the negative spaces they leave in their wake? And in the end, does the "truth" really matter if you yourself are convinced of it? These ideas and questions flow through the heart of Burning, making every scene dense with meaning.

In order to achieve Burning's slow-burn effect, Lee Chang-Dong structures his scenes as a series of elegantly staged long-takes. He uses impeccable blocking paired with fluid camera work to give every shot a sense of momentum. In single takes he can create a dichotomy using close ups to show a character's emotional state before pulling out to a beautiful wide shot to show off the gorgeously lit scenery. It shows his utter command of the four-dimensionality of film as a medium, in which both the characters and camera's movement across time and space are used to artistic effect.

If there was one flaw to be found in this film, it is that the woman's perspective is utterly lost in the film's examination of masculinity. While it shows the faults of two different masculine extremes, the controlling, confident male figure of power and the possessive, selfish "nice guy" mentality, it doesn't give any depth to its sole feminine perspective. Instead, Hae-mi is reduced to a mere object to further the development of the two men. But this fault shouldn't effect the film too much, as it is near-bursting at its already lengthy run-time, and trying to add more development to Hae-mi might have caused it to crumble under this weight.

Burning is dense and difficult, a film that takes work and attention to piece together, but if you can devote yourself entirely to it, you will find one of the most intelligent, artistic films of the year.

Block or Report

rhonig liked these reviews