Reviewed by: Sunil Chauhan

"Lee works the narrative with an ambivalence that borders on the inscrutable" | Photo: Julien Millet

Burning, the sixth feature by 64-year-old Lee Chang-dong, should help propel the south Korean helmer to the same heavyweight ranks as Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Michael Haneke. His first release in eight years, it’s a film that exudes directorial heft in every exacting frame of its muscular, meticulous 148 minutes. It doesn’t wear it lightly.

Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, Burning mirrors some of the original piece’s playfulness in early scenes, where Lee approaches the romantic terrain of Hong Sang-soo. Hanging over it, though, is an altogether more sinister mood that eventually reshapes it as a slow-burning, social-realist mystery-thriller. Think: David-Fincher-meets-the-Dardennes-brothers.

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Told through the eyes of Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in, giving a superbly frustrated, self-loathing turn), the son of an imprisoned farmer living close to the demilitarised zone divide, we are led by his thwarted, suspicious perspective. When he meets the enigmatic Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo, a perfect cipher), she tells him they went to school together but her plastic surgery means he wouldn’t recognise her. Such slipperiness is typical in Burning.

When Hae-mi returns from a Kenyan holiday with a new beau, the icily beguiling Ben (a film-stealing Steven Yeun) whose feelings for Hae-mi we are constantly forced to question, it leaves Jong-su a confused, lovelorn third wheel. Where he is naïve and socially ill at ease, bearing emotions without thinking, Ben is a privileged, Tom Ripley-like sophisticate, supremely assured in his haughty detachment and opaque condescension – in short, a character guaranteed to inspire ire.

After a visit to Ben’s high-end apartment leaves Jong-su lamenting the preponderance of ‘Gatsbys’ around, compounded when Ben casually reveals a pastime of torching greenhouses, we start to feel Jong-su’s mounting fury. Such stark disparities can only lead to resentment, Lee seems to be saying. But if Jong-su’s perspective drives Burning, Ben moulds its tone.

Keeping his cards close to his chest, Lee works the narrative with an ambivalence that borders on the inscrutable (for a 148-minute film based around a 20-page story, perhaps that was inevitable), even as he ticks off timely themes - class, masculinity, social inequality, rural-urban divides - with efficiency. Building on Poetry’s moves toward a more studied arthouse model, there’s an increase in spaciousness, yet in its distant, cerebral ambiguity, it often sits in an airless state of flattened reserve, an odd result for a film responding to our age of anger. Lee doesn’t want to give it to you easy, but when everything finally boils over in an abrupt, if appropriately unsatisfying climax, after two-and-a-half hours of quotidian precision, it’s merely shocking rather than insightful.

A film that’s easier to admire than love, Burning is a chilly proposition. Lee’s earlier efforts Peppermint Candy and Oasis also bore the mark of a filmmaker in full control, yet still packed a shattering intimacy and emotional wallop. Burning, despite the promise of its title, plays it too cool.

Reviewed on: 09 Dec 2018
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Burning packshot
Jong-soo, a part-time worker, bumps into Hae-mi while delivering, who used to live in the same neighborhood. Hae-mi asks him to look after her cat while she's on a trip to Africa.
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Director: Lee Chang-dong

Writer: Lee Chang-dong, based on the short story by Haruki Murakami

Starring: Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo, Steven Yeun

Year: 2018

Runtime: 148 minutes

Country: South Korea

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