+ Recommended – NR, Drama, Thriller (148 minutes)
Burning marks Chang-dong Lee‘s first feature film in more than 8 years. It’s a powerful and un-apologetically memorizing narrative, which marinates in themes of mystery, intrigue, truth, deception, jealousy, and fate. Culminating to an ending that transcends beyond what is imaginable to the average human perception, and yet, seems all too familiar. And believe me: it deserves that nomination for best foreign film.
Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), a very quiet young man, encounters a girl from his past, Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun). He agrees to feed her cat during a trip to Africa, and begins to fall for his new friend. When she returns, Jong-su discovers that she has made a new friend in her travels; Ben (Steven Yeun), who seems to enjoy flaunting his money, influence, and his “superior” DNA over everyone, albeit in a stylish manner. The dynamic between the three leads collide to create a rather intensive conflict, as each of them have very distinct personalities: Hae-mi’s relationship to existentialism, Ben’s desire to break the rules, and Jong-su’s obsessive nature.
Unlike other films, it establishes each character, and the setting, before dipping into more dramatic tones. We get a sense of their lives day-in and day-out. The themes previously discussed are melded into the story early on, but the relationship between the thematic elements and plot doesn’t fully surface until well over halfway in. Burning, to be frank, doesn’t care whether or not its audiences have the patience to wait for the pace to accelerate, as it is more focused with structure and framing. In the final moments, each thematic thread ceases; it doesn’t need to explore the before or the after, because that is of little importance to the fate of these characters. The damage is done.
Some of the more powerful moments in the film come from long-takes in which the scene is surrounded only by diegetic sound, and the camera swaying in the wind. Notably the scene at Jong-su’s house where the three discuss life together. Rather than intercut between unnecessary, heavily scripted scenes, the director lets the viewer simply exist in the same space as the characters. This also occurs at other points in the film: when Jong-su attends to Hae-mi’s cat in the apartment and when they go out to dinner with Ben and his friends.
The performances are layered and deeply grounded in reality. Mainly because of their characters’ inherent flaws as human beings, such as their need to satisfy themselves before others, and a sharp script, though more context comes from eye matches than from words. Steven Yeun is particularly intriguing, perhaps just as much to us as the other characters. You can never fully point your finger towards what he is thinking at any given moment. It’s a quality that adds a pointed flare to the drama, when it does hit. But the way that Jong-seo Jun channels her character’s ambitions, and ideology, is infectious and just as captivating.
If you want to see what I’m talking about and you’re in Lincoln, the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center has select screenings for a limited time. If not, it can also be found on VOD elsewhere. I highly recommend that you seek out this masterful movie experience for yourself.