Burning: An Alluring Portrait of Loneliness And Desire
Back from an 8-year hiatus, acclaimed Korean director Lee Chang-dong (Poetry) returns with the masterfully erected and quietly affecting Burning, an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” (which was itself inspired by William Faulkner’s novel of the same title). The film paints in the gaps of Murakami’s haiku-like source material to craft a slow-burn thriller that lingers like the smell of smoke long after the credits roll.
The film tells the story of three individuals and a mysterious incident they experience. Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) bumps into an old friend, Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), on a part-time delivery job. Haemi asks Jongsu to take care of her cat while she leaves on a trip to Africa. When she returns, Haemi introduces Jongsu to Ben (Steven Yeun), a man she met in Africa. One day, Ben and Haemi pay Jongsu a visit, and Ben reveals his secret interests to Jongsu.
Murakami’s short story, which you can read here, only clocks in at only 13 pages long, so it may come as a bit of a surprise that Chang-dong’s creeping drama/thriller spans nearly 2.5 hours.
While certain details have been altered to maintain Chang-dong’s (and co-screenwriter Oh Jung-Mi’s) specific vision of class frustration and male insecurity, the film stays largely true to the spirit of Murakami’s story and doesn’t waste an ounce of runtime on anything nonessential, only deviating to paint details that enrich character and narrative. It even smartly weaves in aspects of Faulkner’s novel (which involves an arsonist who exerts his dominance by burning barns, forcing his family to lie in skewed and twisted notion of loyalty) to add an extra layer of paternal influence or hereditary fatalism.
However, if you’re looking for a film that offers conclusive answers, Burning is not the film you’re looking for.
Haunting and beautifully cryptic, it uses ambiguity to its advantage, building up to the inevitable while subverting certain expectations, to deliver a climax that gratifies as much as it denies fundamental answers. Very casually, Chang-dong works his way under the skin with masterful precision. He playfully toys with anticipation to create moments of unsettling tension before lighting the match and setting everything ablaze in a moment that neglects complete catharsis in place of something far more resinous.
In order to stick the landing, it’s vital for us to feel connected to these characters whose souls are about to be forever changed by their clashing intersection, and they are brilliantly brought to life by Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo, and Steven Yeun. Ah-in fills Jongsu with pathos, and his loneliness, desire, and frustration can be viscerally felt just in the way he carries himself; Jong-seo gives Haemi a naturally charming and authentic spirit; and Yeun who gives his Gatsby-esque character an electrifying terror, turning benign gestures like yawns and soft laughter into that of nightmares.
In addition to the sensational performances, Burning is also accompanied by gorgeous cinematography by Kyung-pyo Hong and the sleekly stylized realist direction of Chang-dong. The film is at its strongest during its many long-takes, which allow the performances to shine even brighter and the audience to get lost in the experience, that culminate into some richly poetic visual moments. The mysterious quality of the performances perfectly align with the film’s constructed ambiguity to paint a bigger picture without answering the basic questions smoldering below the surface.
Chang-dong, like Murakami, makes the mundane into something magically beautiful and questions the concept of reality. Intriguing in its obscurity, Burning paints an alluring portrait of loneliness, appetite, and desire that lingers long after the fire is extinguished.
Recommendation: With fantastic direction and phenomenal performances, this is a must-see.
Rating: 5 greenhouses outta 5.
What did you think? Did Burning envelop you in its narrative? Did the ambiguity work for you? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well.