[Film Review] Burning (2018)

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English Title: Burning
Original Title: Beoning
Year: 2018
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Genre: Drama, Mystery
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Screenplay: Lee Chang-dong, Oh Jung-mi
based on the short story BARN BURNING by Haruki Murakami
Music: Mowg
Cinematography: Hong Kyung-pyo
Yoo Ah-in
Steven Yeun
Jun Jong-seo
Mun Seong-kun
Kim Soo-kyung
Choi Seung-ho
Ban Hye-ra
Cha Mi-kyung
Lee Bong-ryeon
Rating: 8.6/10

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After an 8-year hiatus, South Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong returns with a bang! BURNING, his sixth feature, is a slow-burn mystery drama set in the city of Paju, Jong-su (Yoo), a novelist wannabe who takes odd jobs to make ends meet, one day, he bumps into Hae-mi (Jun), his childhood neighbor and classmate, who lives alone in a bedsit and leaves Jong-su to feed her cat when she takes a planned trip to Africa alone.

BURNING commences as a standard meet-cute, a slightly awkward boy and a pretty, proactive girl who daringly makes the first move. But Lee carves out a patiently detailed narrative to hint us that something is afoot with Hae-mi, for one thing, she idiosyncratically contemplates on vanishing, her pantomime-prone antics and theory of make-believing tally with the fact that Jong-su, in fact has never seen her cat “Boil” in person during all his cat-feeding duties (in spite of its dungs and the need to replenish the cat food).

Jong-su’s budding love toward Hae-mi comes in for a cold shower when the latter returns from her spiritual trip with a newfound friend Ben (Yeun), a handsome smoothie from beau monde, who claims his job is “play”, whose presence instantly pales Jong-su into a self-conscious gooseberry. Hesitantly hobnobbing with Ben and his friends in their posh haunts and Ben’s plush apartment, Jong-su finds Hae-mi’s ambiguous attitude baffling and Ben’s mysterious charisma a bit daunting and suspicious. After a golden afternoon spending in Jong-su’s derelict farm (which is put into his reluctant care after his father serves a sentence in jail), where the trio seems to enjoy a reticent communion, with Hae-mi obliviously dancing in the buff under the westering sun, and Ben confessing to Jong-su his bi-monthly greenhouse-burning diversion, an activity might stand for something far more sinister when Hae-mi vanishes from thin air after an seemingly interrupted phone call.

Intending to get the bottom of Hae-mi’s disappearance, Jong-su traces all the threads back to Ben, after finding out two “obvious” clues, one is Ben’s new cat who incredibly responds to the name “Boil”, another is an electronic watch similar to the one he gifts Hae-mi, is later found in Ben’s bathroom drawer, Jong-su, who has been delineated as a reactive, taciturn youngster and is characterized by his habitual thousand-yard stare, ably takes a vigilante mission to seek vengeance and surprisingly, Ben’s instinct reaction leaves a more ambivalent feeling of what actually happens to Hae-mi, and what is exactly Ben’s misdeed?

Loosely based on Haruki Murakami’s short story BARN BURNING, BURNING’s 2-hour-and-a-half running time manifests Lee’s indubitable ambition to project a larger picture with its relatively simple narrative structure, and the most extraordinary thing is his ingenuity and boldness of interspersing missing pieces along the road for audience to piece them together and formulate one’s own comprehension of the mystery, which makes for an immensely content and thought-provoking experience for those who can not be sated by a straightforward answer. Is Hae-mi a chronic fabulist, is there really a well near her old home, is she an “offering” of Ben’s morbid ritual? Or a bit far-fetch, but the homoerotic tension between Ben and Jong-su is quite tangible, noting Lee’s deliberately and cautiously deployed no-physical-contact communication between them, until the moment when Ben poke Jong-su’s heart for that “humming” sensation he relishes and pursues, which prompts this reviewer to second-guess that his self-confessed jealousy might stem from an entirely different source, that might grant the love triangle with a new perspective (yes, he is seen reading Faukner, Jong-su’s favorite author).

So, what is the bigger picture here? First and foremost, the gaping stratification between the 1% and the the 99% is too big to overlook, Jong-su and Ben’s paralleled lives have no intersection if not for Hae-mi’s existence, once their paths are crossed, the former has only his dignity to lose and the latter goes nimble-handedly to dissimulate any faint impression of patronage to create a semblance of harmony. Then, there is Hae-mi, another constituent of 99%, but burdened with a disadvantage of her sex, a girl who dwells on “small hunger”and “big hunger”, hopelessly tries to compensate her material poverty with a lofty spiritual richness, her own misery emerges as a poignant criticism of a misogynous society (Jong-su’s biting remark about her nude dance is a thrilling dagger into her heart) that only takes girls on the skin-deep value (Jong-su once remarked that she is ugly, according to Hae-mi, who owns up that her prettiness is totally artificial during their first encounter), which, if anything, is a tacit accomplice of pushing girls like her to the hands of the ilks like Ben, to have their personhood be obliterated without a trace. Incidentally, social commentary and gender politics aside, Lee also punctuates the story with geopolitical sideswipes that cover North Korea, China and USA altogether.

The trio performers, each richly builds a unique persona with either throbbing vulnerability tinted with a soupçon of self-hurting resignation of a benighted future (Jun, in her first movie), enigmatic urbanity smacks of danger and caprices (Yeun), or strange tenacity riddled with tiny bleeding wounds caused by toxic masculinity (Yoo), together they actualize Lee’s perceptive vision of a masterpiece that pluckily delves into the mystical miasma shrouding our contemporary society, in tandem with Mowg’s howlingly otherworldly soundtrack and the divine landscape (misty, royal-blue early morning, gold-hued gloaming, etc.) captured by DP. Hong Kyung-pyo.

referential entries: Lee Chang-dong ’s POETRY (2010, 8.0/10); Dong Yue’s THE LOOMING STORM (2017, 7.4/10).

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