Lee Chang-dong’s Burning challenges audiences with a mesmerizing narrative, which feels surreal and actual. At times, it might resemble a murky thriller or simply a baffling mystery; at some other times, it transcends the ordinary romance and documents the country’s inherent poverty issues. The narrative never settles in one trajectory; but, that might possibly be the movie’s luxurious vehicle to become one of the most absorbing movies in recent history.
Loosely adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story, Barn Burning, Chang-dong surprisingly treats the movie like a visual breakdown of Murakami’s style. The detail of it might be a story for another time. Burning depicts Murakamian lonely people adeptly in a story that feels dreary, sensual, and jazzy at the same time. The narrative treats its series of scenes like dreamlike moments that feels bizarre; yet, the narrative keeps moving forward.
Only a few things happen on-screen ever since the movie’s protagonist, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), encounters a childhood neighbor, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo); attends his father’s prosecution; makes love to Hae-mi; and finally meets Ben (Steven Yeun), someone who seemingly sees Hae-mi, who takes pleasure in occasionally burning greenhouses. However, there are a lot of things actually happening during the course of Burning. Chang-dong and his co-writer, Oh Jung-mi, cleverly incorporates those implicit elements into the story without having to show us.
Chang-dong owns his storytelling medium proficiently; that’s why Burning is captivating and mesmerizing even when its placid pace often registers. Each scene is precise and meaningful with devoted feeling-induced frames. Director of photography, Hong Kyung-po, captures the emotion and the mood that Chang-dong attempts to project to audiences; meanwhile, Mowg’s composition fills at the most elusive moments.
Burning invites the audiences to dive into the dismal sea of loneliness. It’s deep, absorbing, and questioning. The trinity—Jong-su, Hae-mi, and Ben—guides us to the realm of desolation through a slow-burning character study that crafts the world of Burning.
Burning is South Korea‘s entry for foreign language in the 91st Academy Awards. While it was not nominated for the awards, the movie made it into the nine shortlisted movies. Burning becomes the first South Korean movie to achieve the honor.
Burning is the second movie by Lee Chang-dong to be screened in BALINALE after Poetry in 2010.