December 3rd, 2018
STARRING: YOO AH-IN; JEON JONG-SEO; STEVEN YEUN
DIRECTED BY: LEE CHANG-DONG
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
The title- Burning, is almost too on the nose for everything that happens in Lee Chang-dong’s newest film. It’s a slow-cooked narrative, a love-triangle, that morphs into a character study, and leaves you singed from the flames. Without deterring you from seeing it, Burning is a languid, slow moving picture, but it leaves a mark on your very soul. When I finished watching it, I went for a walk. I let this thing marinate in my mind, and I can’t find a better ending in 2018. There are themes at hand, such as love, obsession, mental illness, jealousy, and toxic masculinity. Roll all of that up into a ball, and Burning is a blazing piece of art.
We learn about Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) in the very first shot of Burning. He’s sneaking out of a store, not a slob, but not fancy, on his way to make a food delivery. He’s a quiet soul, a mysterious person, who keeps to himself, but bumps into an old childhood friend, Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo) and in this moment, his life has been turned around. There’s a bit of a past, a friendship, an attraction that wakes Jongsu up from his boring state of life. Haemi, however, is just about to leave for a vacation, and when she comes back, she brings a new friend named Ben (The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun) who is everything that Jongsu is not. Any romantic moments that Jongsu and Haemi had before she left, are now muted, and a tense love-triangle is afoot.
I find it best to think of Burning as a gradual build up with each act, a multilayer of various flavored pancakes. The first layer is an establishment of Jongsu and Haemi’s relationship. It’s romantic, but tentative to approach, both of them worried that love will be ruined. When Ben arrives, things just become awkward. We don’t know where all the relationship status’ sit and when Ben explains to Jongsu that he likes to burn down greenhouses for fun, there is an instant fear. Jongsu wants to tell Haemi to stay away from him, but it could be too late.
The direction of Burning is by Lee Chang-dong, whose work is unknown to me till this. He is working from a short story called Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami, and co-wrote the screenplay with Jungmi Oh. What works extremely well is the tone of mystery. Later in the film, Haemi simply stops communicating with Jongsu. It’s at this point where it turns into a bit of a noir detective thriller, with Jongsu going for runs and inspecting destroyed greenhouses. Is Haemi dead? Is Ben the one who did it? How come Ben seems to care so little for her disappearance? The stone-cold nature of both Yeun and Yoo Ah-in’s performances is an intense, stoic, and very scary thing to experience. Two spectacular performances no doubt.
How Burning ends is not something I would ever tell you, because, as I said, it is my favorite ending of the year. The only few complaints I have is the pace of the film, in the beginning, and ultimately how the story treats our female character. Her presence is used as a device, something that both Jongsu and Ben view as something they can possess, or they are entitled to. It could also be viewed as something quite different. Maybe Haemi is playing with these two men? Maybe she has run away from their toxic masculinity. She could be the hero of our story and that would be the ultimate burn.
3 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady