Deputy Culture Editor – Film & TV
Despite Lee Chang-dong’s directing talent, the film falls short of expectations
Burning is a good film, no doubt, but it lacks a lot to be a great film. With its slow pace, cryptic and dissonant visual and audible clues, and poetic dialogue, Lee Chang-dong’s new offering was bound to be a festival darling. It was equally set not to win the Palme d’Or it was competing for. Why? Because despite combining all the elements to rejoice pedantic cinephiles – and I plead guilty, I am one of them – Burning is all but a revolutionary bit of filmmaking.
Country-boy Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) reunites with childhood friend Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) in the big city Seoul in this adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s Bad Burning (1983). Now a beautiful young woman, the intriguing Hae-mi catches Jon-su’s eye so that he ends up caring for her invisible cat, “Boil” (translated from Korean) while she travels. Oh, the things one does for the promise love (or a really awkward sex scene the likes of which only arthouse cinema can bless us with). On her return, Hae-mi has met rich boy Ben who offers a much better prospect than our protagonist, Jong-su, now condemned to play third wheels to their escapades. What follows is an almost love triangle full of intrigue which is genuinely gripping and keeps us hooked for the long two and a half hour duration. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed all of it but even I must admit the script is not screaming originality. Burning is an intriguing film which will leave you unsure of what you have just seen – was it gripping or simply pulling used-up arthouse thriller tricks? It’s not that Burning is a lazy or a clichéd film, simply that it relies on narratives and directing techniques seen before, not always with the same finesse as it is here, but which we have grown tired of all the same.
However, there is clearly talent in Lee Chang-dong’s filmmaking. He gifts us with beautiful lingering shots of multifaceted South Korea, from Seoul’s trendy Gangnam cafes to the countryside on the border with its northern neighbour. There is skill in the incredible tension built on not much more than a couple of well-highlighted details – but again, you are likely to only marvel at this if you are the type to question the meaning and symbolism of every pixel in the frame, otherwise you might be in for a painfully long fight with sleepiness. Yet, if you make the effort to appreciate it, there is much to take in in Burning. The film offers an underlying portrait of class inequalities and unchecked competition for success When Jong-su gets suspicious/jealous of his rival, Hae-mi tells him “there are many young and rich men like Ben in Korea these days”. Hunky Ben drives a Porsche and lives in a swanky private residence; he lives according to his whims and has others bend to them accordingly. Equally there are a lot of youth scraping in menial jobs for a box-room atop a Seoul hill like Hae-mi and a lot of rural towns of the likes of Jong-su’s.
Youth in Korea, like elsewhere, are not the uniform lot packaged to the public as “millennials”; rather they fight against each other, defy each other’s expectations and push each others out of their comfort zone. Jong-su and Hae-mi’s incursion into the lifestyle of rich Seoul types makes for an unsettling watch. Hae-mi seems oblivious to the social games of Ben’s friendship group as she performs African ritual dances to entertain the bored and beautiful. Jong-su is none the wiser, getting into Ben’s morally questionable mindgames. Although the film is delicate enough not to antagonise any of its protagonists, details gradually feed us hypotheses to mull over. It brilliantly cheats us into thinking we have come up with them ourselves while leading us exactly in the traps it devises. In the extreme minimalism of the script, minds start to wonder and scheme, devising an intricate ending for the film – by now, it feels like it is high time to go home. It pushes us right to the edge only to disappoint. The film ends up falling short of the expectations it worked over two hours to create. All that’s left to decide is whether you went along for the ride or for the final twist.