Hello everyone, it’s Noël! I’m here with another film review. Today I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the highly praised, Burning. I’d been planning to watch this film for a long time, so I am glad that I finally got around to it. I went into the film with high expectations, especially since it boasted such a positive reception from critics around the world. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll enjoy this review.
[Be Forewarned: Slight Spoilers Below].
Burning is a 2018 South Korean psychological drama mystery film directed, produced and co-written by Lee Chang-dong. Based on the short story “Barn Burning” from The Elephant Vanishes by author Haruki Murakami, it stars Yoo Ah In, Steven Yeun, and Jeon Jong Seo. The film premiered on May 16, 2018, at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d’Or. It was released the following day in South Korea, and on October 26, 2018, in the United States. It received critical acclaim, particularly for its ambiguous narrative and performances. It was also selected as the South Korean entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards; although it was not nominated, it became the first Korean film to make it to the final nine-film shortlist (Wikipedia).
Jong Soo (Yoo Ah In) wants to become a writer, but he currently works part-time as a delivery man for a distribution company. While on the job, he runs into his childhood friend Hae Mi (Jeon Jong Seo). They grew up in a small rural town. Later that night, they meet for drinks. Hae Mi tells Jong Soo that she will be traveling to Africa soon and asks if he can stop by her apartment and feed her cat while she is gone. Later, Jong Soo receives a phone call from Hae Mi asking if he can pick her up at the airport the next day. At the airport, Hae Mi introduces Ben (Steven Yeun) to Jong Soo. Hae Mi and Ben met while in Arica. Soon, Ben tells Jong Soo about his hobby (AsianWiki).
This critically acclaimed psychological mystery thriller was indeed a slow burn (excuse the pun), and while it wasn’t as grandiose as I’d imagined, it was not completely lost on me either. Burning certainly splayed before us a number of thought provoking themes, coupled with exceptional acting and direction. Perhaps the most foreboding element of the film, that I would say gave it an upper hand when compared to films from the same genre, was the perturbing ordinariness of the characters and their stories. This was not a film that boasted flashy and ruthless psychopaths or bloodshed. It was a piece on blurred realities, muddled perspectives, social standing, and the harsh monotony of everyday living for those among the working class.
In Korea, there are tons of greenhouses. Useless, filthy, and unpleasant-looking greenhouses. It’s like they’re all waiting for me to burn them down. And as I watch them burn to the ground I feel ecstatic […] I feel a low hum right here. A hum that shakes the very core of the soul.–Ben, (Burning, 2018)
What sets the film apart is the metaphorical brilliance that silently pervades every scene, and the numerous ways these components can be fastened together to build several different narratives. The film’s clever set-up forces the viewer to interpret the riddle connecting the three central characters, with no conclusive answer as to which reality is legitimate. Burning unapologetically requires viewers to piece the puzzle together on their own. No questions are answered by its finish. There are enough traces sprinkled throughout the film to glean what may have taken place, but there are several possible answers to this enigma. The subtlety or refusal to outright depict the course of events, makes the movie more gripping and disturbing than the typical mystery thriller. The suspense and uncomfortableness of not seeing any of the proposed events explicitly play out leaves the incident up to the viewer’s imagination, which is often much more vivid and expressive than any film could dream of being.
There is little dialogue, as the film relies more on symbolism rather than a loaded script. This serves the purpose well, as the deafening silence in various parts of the film add to the tensity of the moment. Some of the most prominent themes explored were reality vs. imagination, the haves and the have-nots, morality of nature, perspective, and obsession. Equally appreciated, was the minimal use of music. Usually, music in film needs to be striking and memorable. In this case, I felt the limited use of understated instrumentals worked to the film’s advantage. The scenes that utilized music did so in a way that was controlled and subdued, however, this complemented the overall tone of the film well. There was never any full-scale action, thus, a rambunctious soundtrack would have felt uncalled for and intrusive.
The cinematography and direction were essential to making this film a success. Every frame was thoughtfully constructed. Various scenic landscapes appeared throughout, which added appealing visuals. However, what stood out most to me was the clever use of clutter and space. Several scenes showcase the messy, cramped and disorderly world of both Hae Mi and Jong Soo. Each of their living spaces was suffocatingly stuffed with miscellaneous items crowding their limited turf. Contrastingly, Ben’s enormous contemporary apartment space was a breath of fresh air. Open, and free of excess, Ben’s house signified order, success, and luxury, while Hae Mi and Jong Soo’s houses revealed the smothering intensity of what it means to be a struggling working class youth.
The acting from all three leads was exemplary. Jeon Jong Seo was alluring and mystifying as Hae Mi. Despite being a fresh face, she maintained a commanding presence among two distinguished male actors. Yoo Ah In exhibited a tremendous effort. As his character became more erratic, he masterfully shifted gears to portray his character’s increasing instability. Steven Yeun ironically had the least amount of screen time from what I could tell, but I would argue that he had the most arresting on-screen presence out of the three, which was no easy feat. Aside from his easy sophistication, there was something quite foreboding about Ben. Though he never makes any outwardly threatening statements, Ben feels ominous and alarmingly out of tune with human emotion. I hand it to Steven Yeun for his skillful execution of such an ambiguous character.
The drawbacks of the film for the average viewer include the two-and-a-half-hour run time paired with slow plot progression. This is a film that builds upon itself in a gradual manner. If you have a short attention span, this is not the film for you. I even found myself having a bit of trouble hanging in there at times, as the first thirty minutes were a tad bit bizarre with many sexual scenes including Jong Soo habitually pleasuring himself inside Hae Mi’s apartment during her absence. I’ll take this opportunity to remind audiences that this film is not suitable for minors. I’d say the “action” of the film doesn’t truly kick into gear until the one-and-a-half-hour mark, where we meet the refined and unsettling Ben. A final quip people may have with the film, is the absence of a clear and coherent ending. The ending and events of this film are very ambiguous and open to interpretation. If you’re a person who desires closure, I’d stray away from this one.
Burning was a memorable experience. While I may have had difficulty powering through the first half hour, the film’s second and third acts reconcile that struggle. It is certainly not intended for everyone, especially those who prefer fast-paced action. There is a particular type of viewer necessary for understanding the underlying themes and intentions of this film. However, if you enjoy provocative films that require critical thinking, Burning is indeed sensational.
Have you watched Burning? What did you think of the film? If you haven’t already, you can check out the trailer here.
Written by: Noël / @LEEJUNKL