Burning (Cert 15)
1 Disc DVD/Blu-ray (Distributor: Thunderbird Releasing) Running Time: 148 minutes approx.
I’ve been a fan of Lee Chang-dong for many years. His film Poetry was my favourite for 2010 whilst 2002’s Oasis remains one of the most hard-hitting social dramas on the subject of disability I’ve ever seen. So, with buzz surrounding Lee’s most recent work, Burning, I was keen to see what magic awaited me.
Based on the short story Barn Burning by celebrated Japanese author Haruki Murakami, we follow Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a farmer’s son working odd jobs in Paju as his father is arrested for violent behaviour against a bailiff collecting on an unpaid debt. One day he meets Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a girl from his local village he’d not seen in years and they meet for drinks.
Hae-mi takes Jong-su back to her apartment, they sleep together then she asks to him feed her cat while she is away on a trip to Africa. Jong-su agrees, visiting the flat daily yet despite never seeing a cat. Two months pass before Hae-mi returns, along with the affluent Ben (Steven Yeun) she met out in Africa. One night, Ben confides in Jong-su he’s strange hobby, then Hae-Mi suddenly disappears.
Usually, films being based on short stories isn’t an issue but for Burning this is significant to one’s enjoyment of it. Murakami’s work was part of an anthology, reportedly running for about 20 pages. So, how does Lee Chang-dong make a two and half-hour film out of something so brief? For many, this will be the problem for, in this writer’s opinion, there is about 30 minutes of palatable material, the rest is sheer flab.
That sounds awfully damning, especially for a director I enjoy, but this film be renamed Slow Burning, moving at a pace so glacial it makes the works of Nuri Bilge Ceylan seem like manic sprints. Jong-su meets and beds Hae-mi inside the first ten minutes, then drops a few gears, plodding along, punctuated by occasional Hong Sang-Soo-esque existential chat sessions, but less pretentious.
During Hae-mi’s absence, Jong-su takes to pleasuring himself inside her flat, presumably to denote that he has fallen or her. Interestingly, Jong-su didn’t recognise Hae-mi since she had plastic surgery after Jong-su allegedly told her she as ugly. Our first red flag of this story is whether Hae-mi is using her newfound beauty for revenge, taking Jong-su for a ride, or maybe she genuinely liked him and his words hurt her.
A lot about Hae-mi doesn’t add up, like some of the stories she tells which Jong-su can’t find anyone to validate or how she devotes all her time to Ben upon he return but still includes Jong-su as if she is still trying to get close to him. Hae-mi seems to have found some kind of spiritual awakening in Africa, and in one beautifully shot scene set against a glorious sunset, she performs an African dance, topless after smoking some weed.
It is almost an hour before Ben makes his revelation to Jong-Su as Hae-mi sleeps off her dope induced stupor and well, it’s odd more than shocking and doesn’t make much sense but then foibles aren’t always rationale. But with Ben being a cagey customer, there is a quiet menace about his declaration that makes it more sinister than it sounds, not that Jong-su picks up on this, at least until Hae-mi disappears.
Ninety minutes have passed before Hae-mi disappears leaving Jong-su an hour to find out what happened to her and whether Ben is involved or not. Whilst it should be tense, dramatic and revelatory it seldom is, capped off by an abrupt but horrifically blunt ending that reveals practically nothing by way of an explanation. It’s one thing to keep your audience on their toes and holding out for answers, it’s another not to give them any at all.
Whether this is a direct lift from Murakami’s story or Lee’s own doing, this leaves the viewer feeling like the previous 148 minutes have been a waste of our time, especially those who were able to immerse themselves in the world Lee presented and became invest in the story. No doubt some will happily accept this as Lee being enigmatic and subversive in not spoon-feeding his audience but surely, the audience should only be the director’s plaything until the payoff?
Perhaps it is me being dense again for not picking up on subtitle clues or symbolism hidden throughout the film but with so much extraneous padding these are so easily forthcoming. There are nice swerves pertaining to Ben’s secret before the reveal, which takes a while to sink in as a metaphor but suits his smug, evasive personality that only Jung-Su can see through which Hae-mi can’t.
Hae-mi is arguably the most fascinating character making it a shame she only appears for such a short time, but makes a huge impression when she is onscreen. The way she is introduced is magnificently played, as part of an innocuous duo of skimpily attired girls promoting a public lottery without any hint of the larger role she would play.
Making her debut, Jeon Jong-seo is an absolute revelation as Hae-mi and a future star in the making. It’s a bold first role to take on but Jeon shows no fear, slipping comfortably into Hae-mi’s skin with bewitching results. Yoo Ah-in is pitch perfect as the louche country bumpkin Jong-su sparring naturally with his overconfident rival, subtly played by Steven Yeun.
Lee’s direction feels sadly indulgent because of the refusal to meet the audience halfway in letting us in on the inside of this curious tale, yet his masterful control is still there and the film never looks less than vibrant and luminescent. I can see how some might have become some entranced by the moods Lee created but I couldn’t do the same.
I can’t call Burning a bad film, just one I simply couldn’t appreciate or connect with, a shame for a director whose works I usually enjoy without condition.
Korean Language PCM Stereo
Korean Language 5.1 DTS-HD:MA
English/English HOH Subtitles
Interview with Director Lee Chang-dong
Rating – ** ½
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