Burning is a triumph, an incendiary piece of cinema. Helmed by South Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong, the film marks his return to the silver screen after an eight-year hiatus. Carefully-paced and tension-filled, it rewards the audience for their patience. What starts out as a romantic drama slowly and surely transforms into a thriller in slow motion. The protracted two-and-a-half hour runtime is akin to a gradually blazing fuse inching towards its inevitable and explosive point of ignition.
It is an adaptation of a short story from the acclaimed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami entitled Burning Barns. The source material itself was riddled with multiple motifs and metaphors which the film effectively expands and translates into the cinematic language. Though the film expands on the story’s narrative and relocates its setting to Korea, it is able to preserve the sense of ambiguity that has come to define it. It is also worth noting that Lee does an effective job in terms of giving the audience an immersive peak into the dreams, paranoia, and memories that continually haunt his main character.
The film centers on the soft-spoken Jongsu. He unexpectedly runs into an old classmate of his, Haemi, who is making ends meet as a narrator model. They fall into a casual romantic fling that is cut short when Haemi embarks on a trip to Africa. She returns a few weeks later, with the enigmatic, wealthy, and confident Ben, setting in motion the central plot of the film.
With shades of “The Great Gatsby,” Ben has an exceptionally charmed life which he approaches with a nonchalance that is more akin to arrogance. This is in stark contrast to the lives that Jongsu and Haemi lead, struggling on a daily basis to make ends meet. They embark on a relationship that can only be called a bizarre love triangle that is fundamentally unbalanced by the wide gap of privilege.
Classifying the film into a specific niche can be quite challenging as it touches on different chords as the plot progresses. It works so well as an unblemished portrait of Korean class conflict, showing how both sides live. That is why one will barely notice how the story slowly transmutes into something more ominous. As the film enters its second act, it starts to delve into the territory of minimalist noir. The film’s careful pacing makes this all the more satisfying said Civilized Health.
All the actors do a splendid job in their respective roles. However, Steven Yeun, the actor playing Ben, deserves special mention here. He perfectly portrays the subtle conceit that the role requires. Best known as Glenn from the Walking Dead and usually cast as the ‘nice guy,’ Yeun gives us a stirring performance that breaks the mold and shows us his talent as a character actor. During the course of the film, you will be asking whether there is something more sinister than a superiority complex behind Ben’s mocking smile.
Burning is a film worth watching. There is so much more to say here. We would love to delve more into the film’s structure and the specific methods used to explore its mysteries. However, the last thing we want is to spoil it for you. So, be sure to give it a watch.