Story By: James Webb
Rating – A+
Burning is acclaimed director Lee Chang-dong’s latest film, based on the short story Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami. Lee does a good job of creating the somewhat dream-like atmosphere characteristic of Murakami’s writing, while also bringing his own edge to the story. Burning follows a writer, Jong-soo (played by actor Yoo Ah-in), who falls for his old school mate, Hae-mi (Jun Jong-Seo). She has a lust for life and really wants to travel, so she tasks him with caring for her cat while she travels to Africa. Jong-soo obliges her, but is shocked when she returns from Africa with the handsome and rich Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong-soo stays close and gradually becomes closer to Ben, while also slowly burning with jealousy below the surface. Later, while sharing a joint, Ben confesses an unusual hobby: burning greenhouses. Jong-soo becomes somewhat obsessed with Ben’s hobby and whether or not he’s telling the truth.
The original short story, Barn Burning featured in Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes is quite short and quiet, with several things implied without being explicitly stated. Fans of Murakami’s story might be disappointed to find that some of that vagueness somewhat missing from the adaption, but it is replaced with a different form of ambiguity. For example, while supposedly caring for Hae-mi’s cat, Jong-soo never sees the cat and wonders if she actually has one. Hae-mi also mentioned falling in a well near her house, but when he asks her relatives, they said there was no such well. There’s a theme of conflicting information and uncertainty that runs through the movie, which replaces the simplicity and vagueness that pervades the short story. Things unfold in much the same way, but with a lot more details added to it, which reinforces the crux of the mystery, making it much harder to miss. Some of the additions could have probably been left on the cutting room floor, as there’s a couple scenes that add very little to the narrative. The movie also continues past the short story’s ending, in an attempt to produce something more cathartic to the viewer, but it would have been more daring to use the short story’s vague ending. Or perhaps the film continuing past a point of no return is more uncomfortable depending on how the viewer interprets the rest of the film. Regardless of the changes, the movie is handsomely shot and Steven Yeun’s soft-spoken and confident Ben stands out as being an impressive romantic rival or antagonist and Jong-soo is a relatable character, although not always entirely likable. Hae-mi isn’t terribly likable either, but she is charming in her own way and it’s at least easy to understand why each man is interested in her.
While Burning is one of the best films of the year, it is a bit long and the pacing causes the movie to really unfold slowly. Because of that, audiences looking for a quick thriller might want to wait until they’re in the right mindset because Burning is much closer to something Paul Thomas Anderson would put out rather than a snappier thriller like The Vanished was. But for those with patience will be rewarded with spectacular visuals and emotionally complex mystery. It can also be read as a reflection of the growing frustration and discontent that many young people feel with regards to the growing wealth gap present in contemporary Korea (those living in other first world countries will likely know that feeling as well). Burning is a movie with much more staying power than most of the other Korean films that have come out so far this year, and is one of the best movies to release thus far in 2018, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see it scoop up some awards before the end of the year.
Review courtesy of K-Movie Love. To see more film reviews, go to kmovielove.com.