REVIEW: Burning

Posted by Matthew Thornton on Monday, February 4, 2019

Director: Chang-dong Lee
Writers: Jungmi Oh (screenplay by), Chang-dong Lee (screenplay by), Haruki Murakami (based on the short story “Barn Burning” by)
Starring: Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jun
Runtime: 148 mins
MPAA Rating: Not Rated (would definitely be R if rated by MPAA)

      Every once and a while, South Korea manages to sneak in a gem of a film that nobody sees or gives any attention to (e.g. The Handmaiden in 2016). Going out of my way to see this film was a fantastic decision. Director Chang-Dong Lee has crafted one of the most furiously intriguing films of the year.

      Jong-Su (Yoo Ah-in), a struggling young writer attempting to establish himself, runs into a girl Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) from his childhood neighborhood, who instantly and almost aggressively takes a liking to him. Things quickly escalate as they reach intimacy, intimate to the point that…shudder…she wants him to pet sit for her while she goes on an international trip. However, when she returns from said trip, she has a new close friend named Ben (Steve Yeun of Walking Dead fame), and it is quickly made apparent that something is not quite right with this openly prosperous guy. The marked difference in social status between Ben and the other two main characters immediately begs the question: why is he so interested in being friends and spending so much time with them? He is amicable and supportive of both Jong-su and Hae-mi to the point that it is strange, but he never crosses the line. From there, the film slowly develops this three-way relationship and reveals more about the why behind everything. However, this film is restrained and more high-brow in that it never spoon-feeds the audience answers and a lot of aspects of the story are left open to interpretation.

      Artful direction and lighting choices make nearly every scene visually alive. All three of the leads give emotive performances and naturally portray their characters. Jong-su as a sort of stilted borderline-mentally-handicapped young man who lacks confidence and direction is impeccably communicated in every scene due to Yoo Ah-in’s purposefully awkward portrayal of the character; it is as if he is sort of stumbling through life and simply reacting to what goes on around him. Conversely, Steve Yeun exudes confidence and superior knowledge, a reflection of his higher economic and social status; he seems to be in on a secret that makes him happy throughout his time on screen with the other two main characters. Despite how friendly he is to Jong-su, you can only feel that Ben is being somewhat disingenuous due to the context of their relationship. The contrast between the two characters is entertaining as the majority of the film’s pivotal scenes involve their characters interacting.

      The script has a lot of subtleties that you have to pick up on though it is very clear about the presence of metaphors. While much of this film is centered around metaphors, the exact meaning of the metaphors is never explicitly revealed, and the film ends with room for the viewer to interpret the meaning of certain events and pieces of dialogue. The plot is multi-layered and requires investment from the viewer. I really liked the way the camera lingers on specific objects or places that are alluded to in earlier dialogue exchanges; such a style keeps your brain moving back and forth between all the different parts of the movie and helps you stay engaged. Definitely a movie you are going to want to watch more than once.

      I really wish more people would watch foreign films as they would get a richer and more diverse cinematic experience by seeing what other cultures’ quality films have to offer. Additionally, I wish this film had been more widely accessible in the United States upon release. It does a lot of things that are uncommon to American cinema, and the writing, direction, cinematography, and acting are all elite. If you ever come across Burning or make the effort to go out of your way to see it, hopefully you will be pleasantly surprised.

RATING: ★★★★

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