Starring Ah-In Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jeon
A lot has been said and written about the film Burning, South Korea’s submission to the Academy Award foreign film race this year. It began rolling out for the world to see back at the Cannes film festival. Whether critical word of mouth or it’s perplexing nature, Burning has become the second most talked about foreign language film this year. It’s getting more attention than most foreign film submissions because most don’t have a familiar face like American actor Steven Yeun (from televisions The Walking Dead). I would describe Burning as categorically divisive, but that gives it too much credit, and assumes the vast majority of it’s paying audience will stick around to the end. Director Chang-dong Lee does more than challenge the viewer, he teases you on a delicate hook for over two hours, rarely giving insight to the films purpose.
Following his tempered father’s jail sentence, Lee Jong-su (Yoo) moves back to his childhood home, on a farm in the countryside. A writer who hasn’t written anything or found an interesting subject, he reunites with a childhood friend from his village. “You don’t recognize me? I had plastic surgery,” Hae-mi (Joen) boasts. He struggles to remember, but they go out, catch up and begin a brief romantic interlude before she jets off to Africa. “Can you feed my cat while I am gone,” she asks. Retuning weeks later with Ben (Yeun), the complete opposite of Lee Jong: Outwardly intelligent, extroverted, well dressed and rich. “Gatsby”, Lee Jong calls him, unable to hide his jealousy with a face that constantly mirror a child understanding the world for the first time. The trio hang out, converse, until Hae-mi disappears.
Labeling it as a mystery or thriller is misleading because while it is in fact mysterious and does use curiosity (or the false sense that something major is just about to happen), it never fulfills that notion.
Despite playing at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, there isn’t much fantastical about Burning. Labeling it as a mystery or thriller is misleading because while it is in fact mysterious and does use curiosity (or the false sense that something major is just about to happen), it never fulfills that notion. Each character is developed in a strange, yet human way that certainly creates a unique sense of awareness. We can’t help but be intrigued by what we don’t know or understand, relying on hundreds of movies before this one that actually give you something for your patience. Burning offers little more than frustration in exchange for your dedication. Sure those who enjoying nuance to the point of basically inventing your own scenario will relish in the experience.
The look of the film is certainly inviting and ethereal at times. Endless night, and low light scenes reinforce some of the stories most unnerving moments. Burning might even be a tough sale to the foreign film committee who have in recent years embraced submissions that lean more toward mainstream style editing, delivery and execution. While there is a kaleidoscope of reactions and readings into this film, one thing we can all agree on is we need more of Yeun on screen.
Burning teases the audience to the point of sleep or complete frustration, rarely providing much insight to it’s motivations.