Sometimes I take a break from my typical Netflix binging to watch quality arthouse films... because I had to for class! In the end it was worth it to see this film. There is a soft spot in my heart for arthouse, but it is usually ruined by the awkward sex scenes I've encountered in so, so much Korean (and honestly, a lot of) film. I was not disappointed on that front. This was your warning in case you haven't seen it yet.
Burning is the latest film from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong. The film stars Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, and Jun Jong-seo. The film is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami called “Barns Burning,” but thankfully strays quite far from the original novel, making it a narrative in its own right.
Burning draws the viewer into a world located somewhere between reality and fiction. As a viewer, this is felt even toward the beginning of the film, as stranger circumstances lead the imagination away from the mundane realism of the opening scenes. While the mystery that dominates the second half of the film maintains interest, the beauty of this film is in the details. There is a depth to this film that would be lost on anyone not familiar enough with the physical locations, sounds, and other such Korea-specific details. Some are spelled out for the viewer, such as the obnoxious background noise at Jongsoo’s home in Paju. Paju is a real place northwest of Seoul that borders North Korea. It is mostly rural and quiet, but that is slowly disappearing due to continued development. This is set against the noisy central Seoul neighborhood of Huam-dong, and again against the calm cityscape of the upscale Banpo-dong. It is clear that Lee is going the geocritical route, as he touches on his intentional use of geography in the film, and he succeeds. Seoul is depicted with stark realism, as well as the rural landscape of Paju. This geocritical element can be found in the score as well. From the ambient background noise, to the traditional-inspired motif that is played throughout tense thriller scenes. A second viewing may reveal more meaning to the choices with the score than initially felt. Overall, Burning is an excellent, and truly beautiful, film when grading on the style and narrative curve.
Despite casting the (possibly) world famous Steven Yeun (Walking Dead, Okja), the real star of Burning is Yoo Ah-in, who plays Haemi. Yet, her talents are wasted on a narrative in which she is a mere plot device for introducing tension between Yeun’s character Ben, and Haemi’s friend Jongsoo. All of the character buildup for Haemi leads nowhere, as the film’s conclusion is squared directly on the conflict between the two male leads. In the end this is a film about male rage, whether it be related to Jongsoo’s economic and romantic impotence or Ben’s privileged but forever outsider status. Though straying from the original novel, it seems that Lee still managed to jump on the Murakami cat qua woman bandwagon, and in doing so, failed to achieve his goal of truly expressing Korean society in a realistic manner. Due to this, while I enjoyed the film as a work of art on a personal level, I did not find it compelling as social commentary.
This is a director who is well known for using literature and film to discuss societal issues, even if he does not usually provide a concrete solution. When compared to his earlier films, such as Poetry and Miryang, Burning does a lesser job at addressing social concerns. The film still holds up as a stellar work from Lee Chang-dong with regards to cinematography, narrative, and mystery appeal.