Review: Burning // 버닝 (2018)

Somewhere in the middle of Lee Chang Dong’s latest thriller Burning the three main characters engage in a little pot smoking, passing on a smouldering stick from one to another. The mood and pacing of the film takes a short breather at this point and Haemi, the lead female character, goes a little ‘off-tangent’, like the plot, taking off her top, swaying to some imagined music, basking in her love for pantomime and throwing even more smoke at a audience that has been calculating and postulating where this plot would go.

Lee Chang Dong’s film Burning, which comes eight years after his last feature film, is an insidiously affecting film with a somewhat hypnotising mood. Plenty of pensive feelings and pent-up rage feature in the film. Unlike previous highly-pointed narratives like Oasis and Secret Sunshine, Burning speaks more to the audience on a subconscious level, building auras more than plots, dropping hints that lead our thoughts to meander instead of scamper to a definite closure. After all, this film is based on ‘Barn Burning’, a short story by Haruki Murakami, which takes a subversive look at friendship, old ties and this thing called trust. On the point of trust, the film intrigues on a level beyond storyline and plot, in its lyrical take of the concept, leading us to question what’s true and what are lies in things we hear.

Burning follows delivery man Lee Jong Soo (pictured above) in his reconnection with childhood friend Haemi and the huge curveball he is thrown in the form of Ben (pictured below), a suave and well-heeled young man who is able to ‘buy’ her attention without trying too hard. Upon her intimate (though short-lived) reconnection with Jong Soo, Haemi asks him to feed her cat during her trip to Africa. That trip turned the game around as she met Ben and started hanging out with him, but also strangely invited Joon Soo to join them in their moments of leisure, and in the company of sophisticated people of greater means.

What ensues is a familiar yet highly understated rivalry between two men of polar opposite social standing, vying for the affection of a girl. But this is no ordinary love triangle story, as Ben who seemingly has the upper hand in this game of affection, is hiding some cards from Haemi and Jong Soo. Haemi comes across as a familiar Korean female prototype - sweet, pretty, skinny, had a little plastic surgery done and looking for a little social mobility. But she turns out to be more complex than that. She went off the beaten track for a holiday in Africa and takes her pantomime training very seriously. In fact, she is quite philosophical about it. One cannot forget an early scene in which she demonstrates the art of pantomime to Jong Soo, skillfully miming the act of eating, leaving the audience with echoes of her deceptive play later in the film. Jong Soo is oddly with them half the time, wanting to be close to Haemi while enduring the slow burn of jealousy with every trophy of affluence Ben flashes.

The film stirs along these awkward relationship lines for quite a good half of the film until Haemi goes missing in the second half and the film takes on a more suspenseful, page-turning thriller trajectory. However, when that happens, director Lee has chosen instead to eschew the trappings of the thriller genre and focus on finding a certain poetic sensibility in the ensuing series of events. Thriller fans may find the pacing a struggle and feel the film could do with a bit more dramatic punctuation between moments. Even the moment of closure at the end of the film felt like a sudden blip on the plot cardiograph. But director Lee’s poetic treatment of the narrative has it way of dropping its moments of revelation in the most epiphanic way. One of the best scenes was Ben’s alleged ‘stray cat’ responding to Jong Soo’s name-calling, revealing that it was the elusive cat that he was supposed to feed during Haemi long holiday in Africa.

There is so much in this film that one cannot put a finger at. While we are unclear if the book informed the film’s treatment and style or if this is director Lee’s desire to explore the poetry of relationships within the framework of a thriller, Burning, the film finds it resonance most at a hyper-conscious level. Director Lee finds ways to meddle with our expectations, connect with the subjects beyond what meets the eye and create sometimes dissociative feelings about the subjects. The elusive cat, the contradictory accounts from different people, the sometimes overly long pauses at certain subjects, all seem to deepen that sense of unsettlement. There is also an eye for subliminal visual textures like the burning greenhouse and a ear for the atmospheric like the faint sounds of North Korean propaganda at the border where Jong Soo lives. This is not forgetting the numbing movie soundtrack that stirs the film’s pacing as much as it adds to its hypnotic experience. Really, Burning is like a marijuana haze you might find yourself stuck in that is liberating as much as it is scary. Review by Jeremy Sing

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