Elvis pitched a burning love… I don’t think this is what he meant.
An aspiring writer, Lee Jong-su, falls for his childhood neighbour, Shin Hae-mi, who, one day, introduces him to a mysterious wealthy gentleman, Ben, who, out of nowhere, has managed to catch her eye.
From filmmaker, Lee Chang-dong, and a vague adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story, Barn Burning, Burning is a film I didn’t expect a lot from but, now, am considering it one of the best films I have seen all year. In all honesty, the reason I saw Burning was for one immediate, shameful reason: we’re in Avengers season and I needed to see something that could distract me from the incoming Endgame. I had heard some big talk about Burning last year, in 2018, when it was doing the festival rounds, but didn’t expect it to actually get a real release in Australian cinemas. When I decided in the past Easter weekend to do away with my Avengers: Endgame anticipation and see something artistic and fulfilling to revert my mind back to its comfort zone of more Arthouse cinema, I decided, “the hell with it… lets go see this Burning movie”. Initially, the turnout at the cinema for Burning was a surprise – not only was my session sold out but the usher informed me that, since its release, Burning had been receiving sold out sessions, one after the other. I was taken aback as I relaxed into my seat, in a loaded theatre, awaiting a film I had no clue what to expect but had just received a hint to its crowd-pleasing magnitude. The question was: how could a little indie film from South Korea have swelled such an endless crowd of filmgoers and general audiences? Seriously, how?! Well, let me try and decode why Burning may just be not only one of the best films released in the calendar year, but also generally, one of the best films made in the past decade.
From all accounts, director, Lee Chang-dong, is a well-respected creator and figure in filmmaking, with Burning being his first film released in eight years. With sweeping direction, immaculate cinematography and a visual movement in the progression of the narrative, Burning goes to prove Lee’s masterful ingenuity in the art of filmmaking. Backed by three outstanding actors, Burning was technically one of the best engineered films I have seen in quite a while. With lead actors, Yoo Ah-in and Jeon Jong-seo, Burning quite literally gave its all in the realm of performances as Steven Yeun, especially, stood out as the film’s central star with his subtle movements and quaint motions offering genuine discomfort to the narrative.
The cinematography proved to be some of the best I have seen in ages – looming and elusive, but also romantic and naïve but, finally, upholding an aggressiveness and grandiose. The score appeared unique and finely tuned, operating at pivotal moments whenever Burning needed it most to heighten the relaxation or suspense of a scene. All these technical marvels came together, working off one another so precisely and perfectly, and yet… I doubt Burning amassed its crowds purely because of its technicalities. No, instead, Burning was first and foremost a marvel of storytelling and how it allowed its narrative to evolve and take shape overtime.
Burning is certainly a film that works best when you have no knowledge of its story before watching it. Going into Burning completely blind made for a much tenser, gripping experience. I had no real idea of what Burning would be about or what genre the film would occupy, and the answer ended up being… well, there was no real answer. Burning was wild and unpredictable, like a fire raging beyond.
I have talked a many times about plots in film that evolve and move through phases. From one genre to the next within the entirety of a single runtime, I find films that accomplish such a feat either remarkably genius or terribly miscalculated. And although Burning was remarkably genius, I wouldn’t run out to say that it was a film that exactly evolved or transitioned between genres – Burning, in fact, never felt like it abandoned one genre for the next or made the leap to a new tonal setting. In Burning, everything that came to light when the narrative deepened, felt organic – it felt natural like a simple progression of the plot. The darker edges of the film’s final acts never felt out of the blue and instead utterly complimented the opening half for setting in motion such darker twists to take place. Everything about Burning felt like an intentional move to insight discomfort – a seething terror to ensure that what the audience was watching was not their garden-variety romantic drama. Burning identified itself near immediately as some perverse thriller, using a genre as innocent as romance as a lens into its horrors.
And yet, I don’t know if I could call it a thriller, neither a romance, or exactly a character study. Burning occupied a field of elusive storytelling that felt like reality. As dark as Burning got and as thick the mystery proved itself to be, the film always maintained a sense of realism that continued to plague the runtime like a time bomb waiting patiently beneath the streets of Seoul to explode. Nothing felt out of the realms of possibility as every decision made, every answer never received and every dead end faced correlated to an impressive finale of genuine, unpredictable doom and gloom.
To put into the perspective of Lee, Burning was predominantly a film about young people in a world constantly exuding a sense of mystery. The world is never clear cut when one’s young – nothing is ever straightforward. The answers are never always present and explanations are never truly clear. I could sit here and try my best to absolve what I thought the essential meaning of Burning was, but even then I believe efforts to be futile. Burning has the power to mean a lot of things to a lot of people; whether a commentary on class struggles between the well-off and the middle class, the divide between rural and urban, the real and the fake, fiction and non-fiction, the truth and the lies, jealousy and paranoia – it all ticks and all moves concurrently in Burning‘s veins.
Part of me does not want to give my personal thematic opinion on this film, purely not to spoil anything, but the other half doesn’t want me to because I don’t want audiences going in with a preconceived opinion. Sure, there was romance… but was it just lust? Sure, there was crime… but was it just fear? Burning gave me a burning sensation to, for once, actually explore its workings on a deeper level from outside the bounds of my comfort zone… and I want you guys to have the same experience. Burning is a blank canvas – so make up your own mind.
Whether or not you understand Burning or even like it, this was a phenomenal film unlike anything I have reviewed in the past. Burning was that rare Arthouse film I truly want to see again in cinemas, purely because, not only did it deeply intrigue me, but I genuinely loved it. It’s weird… I went into Burning with the intention of blocking my hype for Avengers: Endgame… I never thought I would leave with my anticipations to see Burning again, sitting higher than even than my hype for the Marvel blockbuster.
Burning is, in fact… LOST ART
- Palaceworks 2018, Burning (2018), IMP Awards, TMDb, viewed 23 April 2019, <http://www.impawards.com/intl/south_korea/2018/beoning_ver4.html> (Featured Image)
- Ide, W 2019, Burning review – mesmerising thriller of murky motives, The Guardian, Guardian News & Media Limited, viewed 23 April 2019, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/feb/02/burning-review-lee-chang-dong-steven-yeun>