Burning is a film I think I like more than I love, although it is fortunately one of that subcategory’s variants where I can recognise that the film in question is objectively great.
Burning is a damn great film by a director who (from my research as I personally haven’t seen any of his prior works) only makes damn great films, and I am fairly certain that a second viewing, or even just one that didn’t take place within the confines of a film festival after this specific fortnight, will have me adding at least another half-star to the score.
But please understand, Burning is 148 minutes long and moves at a snail’s pace. This is the slowest of slow burns but it does so with a singular destination in mind that it is always making progress towards, and the resulting crescendo is gasp-inducing. Burning earns its 148 minute runtime, but that can be hard to properly appreciate in the twilight of a film festival.
When we begin, things appear straightforward enough. Lee (Yoo Ah-in) is a wannabe writer living in a village on the border of the two Koreas, attempting to pen the next great work of literature whilst working low-paying delivery jobs to make ends meet. In Burning’s opening scene, he bumps into an old villager and former schoolmate of his, Shin (Jeon Jong-seo), although he doesn’t recognise her. In fact, as it is slowly parcelled out, the two were barely acquaintances back in the day, Lee supposedly only talked to her once the entire time they were in school and that was to tell her how ugly she was, so he probably wouldn’t have recognised her even if she hadn’t gotten self-confessed plastic surgery.
Despite that, the two strike up a relationship of sorts, one that eventually turns briefly sexual until Shin asks Lee for a favour: watch her unseen cat Boil (named after the boiler room she found him in) in her comically tiny apartment whilst she takes a trip to Africa in order to awaken her “Great Hunger.” When she returns, it’s with another man in tow, the effortlessly-charming and financially-loaded Ben (Steven Yeun).
Anyone expecting Burning to then transition into a love-triangle drama is only part right. Chang-dong’s languid opus, adapted with Oh Jung-mi from a short story by Haruki Murakami, is the kind of film whose nature seems to shift roughly every 30 minutes or so, going from a romance piece to an existential drama to the East Asian equivalent of a cringe-comedy to something far more sinister each time anything resembling a major action occurs in the narrative.
But calling it a “shift” is miscategorising things, for Burning is more one of those films that starts the viewer off with a set of blinders that are gradually removed as time goes on, unfurling additional sides and dimensions until the eventual reveal of the full picture at the last possible moment. “Shift” implies something awkward and done with force, whereas Burning slides between its different modes with an extreme precision and in such a way that it never feels like the film’s various stops and overall destination weren’t the plan all along.
To say too much would be to give the game away, but Burning is focussed greatly on young male dissatisfaction and entitlement. Lee being a burnout despite not even reaching his 30s with no prospects (he’s already served his time in the military), currently dealing with his father being put on trial for going crazy and attacking the other farmers around the family’s village, and, despite constantly saying he wants to be a writer, has yet to pen a single word because his imagination is too small and he can’t conceive how the world works (by his own admission).
His relationship with Shin is less a mutual exchanging of feelings and more an insular moping deer in the headlights allowing this exuberant and active puppy dog to glom onto him for a brief window of time; their sex is both awkwardly humorous and deeply uncomfortable for this exact fact. Lee is a man repressed, both emotionally and in his own memories where Shin and key details of his own village completely fail to factor in.
He’s got a chip on his shoulder, therefore, one that is exacerbated when Ben turns up, only six or seven years older than Lee is, living the life he’s always wanted. Ben’s cultured, charming, loaded, working a job that he refuses to specify since “even if I explained it, you wouldn’t understand it,” with a high-class flat, a Porsche, and now the girl. Lee tars Ben as “The Great Gatsby” when the latter is out of earshot in a jealous fit, and it’s only made worse when Ben, who appears to be taking genuine steps to befriend Lee and not just because Shin keeps dragging him along, starts divulging aspects of his personality that Lee also shares, like a simmering rage that needs letting off every two months in a symbolic fiery display.
Ben is the mirror-version of Lee in many respects, except that he’s ‘won’ the game of life Lee wishes he could even enter. And that resultant tension coils and coils, turning ever tighter in surprising ways that often go without clear answers, until it culminates in the best ending of the entire year. Chang-dong draws out every last morsel from the material that he can, aided along the way by Hong Kyung-pyo’s austere cinematography, Mowg’s unsettling score, and Steven Yeun’s utterly outstanding and multifaceted turn as Ben, effortlessly shifting our perception of the character as Lee’s does without contradicting his prior self.
Again, that score is almost definitely too low. I’ve struggled with writing this entry for a good few hours for the simple fact that I didn’t know how to put Burning into words in a way that does it justice, and I’m appreciating it more and more in the hours following the screening because it is a truly spectacular piece of work.
Upon a second viewing at a later date, I can already tell that my “like” is going to flip to “love” because Lee Chang-dong’s film is technically impeccable. It’s just a shame that I had to watch it under less-than-ideal circumstances.
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