Director: Lee Chang-dong
Cinematography: Kyung-pyo Hong
Writers: Lee Chang-dong (screenplay), Jungmi Oh (screenplay), Haruki Muramaki (Novel)
Editors: Da-won Kim, Hyun Kim
Stars: Ah-In Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jeon
“Burning” is a sensation, an unconventional Thriller that is challenging on a personal, economic, and social level. Lee Chang-dong, at 64 years of age, succeeded in crafting a beautifully sinister work of art, based on the Haruki Muramaki novel “Barn Burning”. In one of the most layered and complex thrillers ever made, Lee Chang-dong dug deep into modern insecurities within South Korea through character and imagery. The chilling cinematography from Kyung-pyo Hong created this dark, hazardous feeling to the entire film and captured the underwhelming evil within.
The brooding tone of the film is subtlety hidden under social standing, jealousy, and the moral structure of these characters. The difference in each of the three main characters not only represents the divide but displays the animosity and structural issues hidden deep into this society. The writing, in overall tones and themes, is quite good here as well as the character writing which embodies these themes.
Lee Jong-Su (Ah-In Yoo) plays as the jealous, underprivileged, quiet type, with clearly an anger boiling underneath the surface. Seeing through his eyes lends the story to a deeper understanding of this underhanded idea of anger. But even more intriguing than the characters moral truths is the moral untruths that are hidden in the two other prominent characters.
The first character Jong-Su comes to know is a childhood friend, Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), an incredible mystery of a character, almost from the get-go as she explains the “little hunger” and “giant hunger,” before blurting out about her trip to Africa in the scene where Jong-su falls for her. But as soon as she returns, we get Steven Yeun (Ben) introduced into the story, in one of the best character introduction, the entire dynamic previously setup is shattered in that very moment, but the story gives no indication of something iniquitous unless you’re looking closely.
The real mystery, however, is the “Gatsby,” as Jong-su refers to him in the film or Ben, who takes a keen interest in Hae-mi and becomes a confusing aspect of Jong-su’s existence in this story. As this triangle is set up between the three, each individual relationship develops into something obscure and unbeknownst. And once the characters begin to unravel as Jong-su shares his true feelings about Hae-mi and Ben tells him of his illustrious hobby, all the subtlety, and good will, that is anything but if you look deeper, leads to an incredibly dark place. It’s truly one of the best scripts of the year.
As for the appearance, it’s a gorgeously dark, cautiously lit and grat painted color scheme that helps visualize and translates the inner meaning of some of the broader themes. The scenes of Jong-su running through his farm-town, with the sound of the North Korean propaganda blasting in the background, were extremely memorable and beautiful sequences. That’s not to mention how well it matches the tone of the story, dark, grey overtones mixed in with unique Korean architecture and hazy lighting. In terms of craft, absolutely some of the best wide-shot and general camera work done this year.
South Korea, as is the case in most Asia countries, has more narrow streets and neighborhoods than in the US, and in Burning, that condensed population seemingly bears down on you throughout the film. The sudden cut from a small coffee shop to a brightly fashing club blasting music adds to this feeling. Again, this relates to the excellent direction of Chang-dong and his ability to curate a specific depth of feeling in Burning. It’s powerful filmmaking. It doesn’t take a lot of dialogue for a full understanding of these characters, world, and story. It also helps when the score, created by the experienced Korean film composer, Mowg, keeps the tension at a high and then brings it down with jazz vibes. It’ a great addition to each scene that pounding music is played.
In the final few acts, we get a real sense of Ben and Jong-su’s intentions, as things move quickly. These are some of the best scenes of the movie and of the year. When Hae-mi isn’t as prevalent in the story, the standard social practices that Jong-su almost unwittingly did before being thrown out the window as Jong-su’s suspicion grows. What comes out from this suspicion is one of the more haunting but well executed final scenes in a thriller ever. An almost perfect end to the triangle of characters and their story.
In time, I believe Burning will be considered a classic and a thriller that threw aside conventions. It will be also hard to find a film that is as dreary and internal as “Burning” but is as deeply beautiful with its look and characters. It’s a film that doesn’t lay anything out straightforward and doesn’t look to coddle its audience. It throws a lot of meaning out, challenging the audience to find it.
Lastly, it’s the best-crafted film of 2018. Lee Chang-dong put together something unique and stylish that hides away the sinister nature of the characters perfectly. From the editing to the aesthetics, writing, casting, performances and directing, it hits on all cylinders. Subtlety isn’t always good in the film, but in this case, it works wonders.