Burning (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A slow-burning thriller from Lee Chang Dong

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South Korean film “Burning”, which was recently shown at the Cannes Film Festival and is also currently being shown here in South Korea, is a slow but steady thriller drama which constantly baffles us throughout its 148-minute running time. Although it is often difficult for me to become emotionally involved in its drama for several reasons I will later talk about, I admire its skillful handling of mood and story at least, and I think it is another interesting work from one of the best filmmakers in South Korea.

The story of the movie mainly revolves around Jong-soo (Yoo Ah-in), a young man who wants to be a writer someday but has been so far stuck in menial low-wage jobs. During the opening long-take scene, the camera patiently follows him as he is delivering some goods to a shop, and then he is recognized in front of the shop by Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), a plucky young woman who was his old hometown friend. Although he did not recognize her well at first because of her minor plastic surgery, they soon come to have a private talk together, and then she takes him to her small one-room residence, where they eventually have a sex as the sunshine reflected from outside briefly brightens her residence a bit.

Now you may wonder like I did during my viewing: what exactly did Hae-mi see from Jong-soo? While the movie does not explain much, she later tells him that she needs someone to take care of her cat while she is traveling in Africa for a while, and Jong-soo, who is clearly smitten with her, agrees to do that, but then he does not see any particular sign of her cat except its litter box under her bed when he comes to her residence not long after she leaves for Africa. Did she actually lie to him? If so, why the hell did she do that?

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Anyway, Jong-soo has the other matter to deal with besides that. His father, who has raised cows in his rural village which is not so far from North Korea, was recently sent to a trial on the charge of beating some local official, and that means Jong-soo must take care of whatever is remained in his father failing farming business. As Jong-soo looks around the shabby and messy interior of his old home, the movie succinctly conveys to us some information on his father’s life. and there is a small but crucial moment when Jong-soo later comes inside a storage and then finds a number of sharp objects, which feel as disturbing as the loud sound of propaganda broadcast from North Korea or a mysterious phone call which frequently annoys Jonh-soo.

Meanwhile, Hae-mi comes back from Africa, but she is not alone. During her trip, she happened to encounter a handsome guy named Ben (Steven Yeun), and she eagerly introduces him to Jong-soo, who does not particularly welcome this stranger much but comes to spend more time with him and Hae-mi because, well, that is what she wants.

As clearly shown from his posh apartment and expensive sports car, Ben is a very affluent guy, but he is usually vague about the source of his considerable wealth. While feeling more of the class gap between him and Ben, Jong-soo becomes more suspicious of Ben when Ben reveals his rather morbid side to Jong-soo during their personal conversation, but Hae-mi does not seem to sense anything particularly wrong from Ben, and she continues to enjoy her free-spirit status, as reflected by a nervously beautiful twilight scene where she dances to music in front of her two guys while incidentally being half-naked.

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And then something strange happens as the story enters its second half. I will not go into details here, but I can tell you instead that Jong-soo gets himself slowly mired in a dark territory of obsession and confusion as struggling to reach for whatever is hidden from him, and director Lee Chang-dong, who also adapted Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” along with Oh Jung-mi, did a deft job of slowly dialing up the level of tension beneath the screen. Despite its long running time, the movie seldom lags in its stable narrative pacing, and its technical aspects are superb to say the least. Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, who previously worked in “Snowpiercer” (2013), “Sea Fog” (2014), and “The Wailing” (2016), effectively establishes the moody but realistic atmosphere around the main characters in the film via his impeccable utilization of lights and shadows, and that unnerving mood is further accentuated by Mowg’s ambiguous score on the soundtrack.

While appreciating its strong points including the good acting from its three lead performers, I was also bothered by a number of weak points of the movie. For instance, its depiction of female characters besides Hae-mi is one-dimensional at best and misogynistic at worst, and Hae-mi remains to be more or less than your average dream girl beyond reach. Pushing its symbols and metaphors a little too blatantly at times (my personal favorite scene of unintentional hilarity is the one where an act of masturbation is juxtaposed with the wide shot of, what do you know, a tower), the movie is also hampered by several stilted dialogue scenes, and the finale feels rather muddled instead of dramatically impactful. In addition, it is not very comfortable for me and some other South Korean audiences to watch Yoo Ah-in, who has impertinently revealed himself as a deplorable misogynist jerk in public, or Steven Yeun, who was recently criticized for his insincere public apology on a serious mistake involved with a Japanese flag.

Considering that it received lots of praises at the Cannes Film Festival, I guess “Burning” will probably not be empty-handed tomorrow, but it looks like a minor work compared to Lee Chang-dong’s previous works such as “Secret Sunshine” (2007) and “Poetry” (2010), which I chose as the best South Korean film of 2010. The movie is surely an engaging work, but it did not affect me as powerfully as these two films, and I was only reminded that there have been heaps of South Korean films about angry, disaffected young men. Sure, this is a well-made one, but, seriously, do South Korean audiences need to be served with another familiar male narrative?

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