Burning movie review: Lee Chang Dong's film brings a Haruki Murakami short story to life — and how

Mihir Fadnavis

Oct 31, 2018 16:40:06 IST

4/5

Language: Korean

Switching gears after his highly regarded film Secret Sunshine, filmmaker Lee Chang Dong delivers a darker and more emotionally charged feature with Burning, a film that brings a Haruki Murakami short story vividly to life. Bolstered by terrific performances and characters who become increasingly off-putting as the plot advances, this slow-burn drama is somewhat heavy, tonally, but its dreamlike quality in a naturalistic setting makes for a very absorbing watch.

Burning movie review: Lee Chang Dongs film brings a Haruki Murakami short story to life — and how

Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo and Steven Yeun in Burning. Image via Twitter

Much like Dong’s previous film Poetry, this film may be a little light on narrative development but it's rich in observations of character. Once again we wallow in the protagonist’s failures in life as he struggles to come to terms with a self-destructive family history.

Lee Jongsu (Yoo Ah-In) is a young writer staying in a rundown farm as his father sits in jail for committing a violent crime. Like many writers, he’s aimless, depressed, lonely, constantly looking for direction and human comfort of any sort, never having the will to write, and working at awful places to pay his rent. He falls for his childhood friend Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) after an awkward sexual encounter but just when things are looking up for him, she returns from a holiday in Africa with her new boyfriend Ben (Steven Yuen), a rich, sophisticated and highly-intelligent polar opposite of Lee.

Director Dong’s blend of small-scale realism and illusory existentialism plays very much like a Korean version of mumblecore, with Ah-in as the definitive poster boy for the young and the purposeless. He’s almost a human potato bag, lumbering about with no real personality except for his emotions bulging at the seams of his body and not having the strength or physical or emotional reservoirs to deal with them.

If Burning feels tonally unscrewed at times, the emotional substructures of Lee’s acts are astutely mapped out, especially with regard to the distressed past he shares with his father. And while it may seem overstated when the benign loser that Lee is transforms himself throughout the film, there’s a sad desperation about him that makes him someone you want to care about, even after he crosses the line.

Jong-seo is equally compelling as the central arch in a love triangle, even if her oft-disoriented persona winds up showing less inner complexity than her male counterparts, but her presence off screen in the latter half of the film carries an identifiable weight. On the other hand, Yuen's face conveys a world of emotion without much effort, enigmatically showing strains of Tony Leung from Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love as well as Patrick Bateman with OCD.

The dynamic between the trio makes them seem like comrades in solitude despite the seemingly fulfilling life that Ben leads.

The film works best during its vast swathes of dialogue-free moments that lend some poetic eeriness to the characters and their motivations; not every one of those attempts deliver the same power but there’s an expressionist charm to the moments, working as an anchor between the audience and the character of Lee, whose fixation on curious humans breaks him down bit by bit.

Some of the stranger moments in Burning become easy to absorb since it's been established that we’re seeing the story from Lee’s point of view, and things may be more surreal than how they actually transpired.

Dong’s choice of execution is important, with hush, spacey and challenging shots of the Korean countryside becoming the source of this story's horsepower. More importantly, it enriches the narrative with ambiguity, leaving viewers to fill in the blanks where exposition is lacking. Contrast is key here as the sights and sounds in the film forms an odd safety net for one character and an internal prison of sorts for another.

The haunting score by new Korean cinema legend Mowg makes the film at once emotionally laconic and cinematically intoxicating, combining the comforting with the perplexing, where sights of things on fire serve as metaphorical set pieces and the echoes serve as bit players. It makes for an involving study of human drama because the characters resonate like real people – which is a little frightening given what some of them ultimately do in the film.

(Editor's note: With the 20th edition of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival is finally here comes an unending list of critically acclaimed Indian and international films to watch. Firstpost will review the most promising of these films.)

Updated Date: Oct 31, 2018 16:40:06 IST

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