Chang-dong Lee’s Burning, based on Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’, approaches the mysteries of life in this unconventional and genre-subverting thriller set in modern consumerist South-Korea. The film explores the lives of three enigmatic youths as they try to make sense of their purpose, existence and place in the world.
Born in Daegu the main hub of South-Korea’s conservative party, Burning director Chang-dong Lee graduated in 1981 and spent the majority of his time writing and directing plays in the theatre. Accomplishing himself as a teacher and novelist, he entered the landscape of Cinema at the age of 40 and gained immediate critical success with his debut film Green Fish (1995). Looking at his previous work, Lee places his characters into situations where they must search for a meaning in life, often futilely in the melodramatic social and political climate of South Korea, his home country. Burning, though holding these elements, breaks new territory by utilising thriller conventions to tell a haunting but powerfully humanistic film. Receiving the highest-ever score from its Screen International’s prestigious critics’ poll, Burning was a standout success at Cannes Film Festival winning the Fipresci International Critics Prize, Best Foreign Language Film at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and Best Foreign Language Film at the Toronto Film Critics Association and culminated with being shortlisted for the Best Foreign Picture at the 2019 Academy Awards (and in our minds, should have defintely been nominated!).
Yoo Ah-in, Jong-seo Jun and Steven Yeun as the three enigmatic youths in Burning
The film follows Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a recent university graduate and budding writer, who randomly reconnects with an old childhood friend, Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun) on the streets of Seoul. The two reminisce over drinks, and Hae-mi abruptly asks Jong-su to feed her cat while she travels to Africa. Jong-su believes a relationship is blossomming, pining for her as he periodically returns to her apartment to feed her cat that seemingly appears not to exist – further fanning his growing feelings. Upon her return, Jong-su is greeted by Ben (a towering performance from Steven Yeun) a handsome, well-travelled and Gatsby-esque wealthy young man. As the awkward friendship between the three grows, Jong-su’s passion grows deeper and more threatened as Hae-mi appears to be completely under Ben’s superior charm. While at Jong-su’s rural home, Ben gives a mysterious confession that pushes Jong-su in a desperate and erratic search to unveil the truth. The performances are wonderfully layered and enigmatic, truthful portrayals that disguise beautifully within the constantly shifting reality of the film, with the three characters representing certain inflections on disenfranchised youth.
Burning’s layered approach conveys effortlessly, like poetry, on the cinema screen. Striking cinematography showcases breathtaking South-Korean rural landscapes juxtaposed against the bustling and claustrophobic city of Seoul, creating imagery that dictates the unfurling narrative. Sound also serves an important function, punctuating moments with disorienting barrages of noise. The faceless traffic of Seoul and a loudspeaker at Jong-su’s rural home outside the Capital that covers the area with North-Korean propaganda via a huge loudspeaker are examples of the poetic eeriness only capable by the hands of a true master filmmaker.
The film delivers a story prioritising ambiguity and the subconscious. Like that of poetry, the audience is invited to draw their own interpretations through its stoic sensibilities. It will leave you mesmerised, replaying the scenes and questioning whether everything seen can be taken at face value, or if there is something deeper lurking within.
This blog post was written by Blake Gamble, a duty-manager at Palace Norton Street. Blake is passionately dedicated to all things cinema, and BURNING is his top-pick for April, don’t miss it!
See it first at our special event screenings on April 14, exclusive to Palace Cinemas. Times and locations HERE