17 October 2018 | ctowyi
A hypnotic menagerie of the basest of human behaviour
Terms like "masterpiece" and "breathtaking" are used far too often, yet they define Lee Chang-dong's latest, eight years after his brutally lyrical Poetry (2010). However, Burning, based on Haruki Murakami's short story Barn Burning, is not an easy film to watch. Allusive and elusive, it begins as a brilliant character study and gradually shifts its gear segueing into psychological thriller territory.
Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a part-time worker, bumps into Hae-mi (Jun Jeong-seo) while delivering, who used to live in the same neighborhood. Hae-mi asks him to look after her cat while she's on a trip to Africa. When Hae-mi comes back, she introduces Ben (Steven Yuen), a mysterious guy she met in Africa, to Jong-su. One day, Ben visits Jong-su's with Hae-mi and confesses to him during a pot session that he burns abandoned greenhouses.
In anticipation of the film, I re-read the Haruki Murakami's short story taken from the anthology The Elephant Vanishes. Like a lot of his works, the story feels cryptic, simple on the surface, surreal once it gets under your skin. There is a mystery but Murakami doesn't quite persuade you to penetrate beneath the veneer. I certainly didn't think for one second it could be adapted into a film because there doesn't seem to be much of a plot at all. My wife shared the same sentiment. We were all the more curious as to what Lee could distill from this intriguing short story.
Like Murakami's distinctive prose, Lee's Burning retains the other-worldly surreality through arthouse pacing and artful cinematography. The first act moves at a languid pace as we observe Jong-su's infectious reticence and Hae-mi's enthusiastic flamboyance. It is an unlikely match, but you will sense the possibility of a sweet romance. They long to cling near one another like satellites, but they will never share the same orbit because forming the third vertex of the triangular relationship is Ben, the coolly detached upper-class, the spanner in the works, the Great Gatsby.
As much as the first act plays like a meditative dance of a fever dream and an elegy for lost innocence, I also recognise that it will be divisive. I have a feeling most filmgoers won't have the patience to sit through it and be emotionally vested in the characters. Lee may be an extraordinary image maker, gently probing deep into the human psyche, its desires and impulses, but the story feels opaque, dense, resembling an enigma. But if one is a serious filmgoer, it is easy to slip into Lee's rhapsodic wonder of a tale, patiently waiting for the bomb to drop. It is when the head film becomes a mind film in the second act that it pays dividends tenfold.
If Murakami's short story feels deceptively simple, Lee takes it into the nether region of complexity. He unravels what it means to be consumed by a mystery and what it means to be alive. The production is meticulously artful - ponder over how Jong-su's home is a stone's throw from the border of both Koreas and how propaganda is blaring every other hour, and ravel in the beautiful light of the sunset as Ben shares his unusual hobby. Lee is able to externalise the interior states of the human mind in extraordinary ways. The subtext of social classes in the Korean society also plunges a knife into one's consciousness. He is also helped by a unique soundtrack of discordant musical cues that grow in mysterious power as the story grows in stature. Lee builds the final act to a feverish high and he almost wants to deny us the satisfaction of a resolution, but it does arrive at an ending that is shocking and inevitable. There is no celebration; there is only the quiet satisfaction of arriving at the solution of a baffling Math problem that has nagged at you for many sleepless nights.
Lee fills every frame with meaning, enhanced and accentuated in no small part by the three superb leads. He priorities rhythm and texture over narrative clarity, immersing us in a hypnotic menagerie of the basest of human behaviour. Burning is an engrossing tale of the unravelling of a rational and innocent mind by sheer desire, rich with characterisations and themes. It is a Korean film unlike any other Korean film I have seen and it immediately warrants a second or third viewing to catch all the nuances. I hope I don't have to wait another eight years for his next film.