Burning (2018)


Directed by Lee Chang-dong
Country: South Korea

The films of Lee Chang-dong (“Peppermint Candy”, “Oasis”, “Poetry”), one of the most esteemed filmmakers from South Korea, are usually layered in a way that requires some patience from the viewer. If you are able to cope with slow developments and dive in Chang-dong’s detached, breezy flow that gradually shapes his characters, it is almost certain you’ll be rewarded in the end. And that’s exactly what you get in the peaceful “Burning”, a skilled cinematic adaptation of a short story by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.

Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a confessed adept of William Faulkner, aspires to write his first novel short time after earning a degree in creative writing. He lives in Paju, on the border with North Korea, where he grew up practically alone, taking care of the family’s farm. His mother left when he was still a kid because of the stubbornness and irascible character of his father, a war vet who was sent to prison for physical aggression to an officer.


One day, while working part-time in Seoul, Jong-su runs into Hae-mi (newcomer Jeon Jong-seo), a former neighbor and classmate who secretly had a crush on him. Before Hae-mi’s trip to Africa, they sleep together, also agreeing that Jong-su will come to Seoul to feed her cat while she’s away. In her apartment, he masturbates looking at her picture, but his hope of having her in his arms again becomes questionable with the arrival of Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy man whom he calls ‘Great Gatsby’. This vague, unprincipled man likes to break the rules and doesn’t recall of crying at any stage of his luxurious life. He lives to entertain himself and provide amusement to his upper-class friends through recurrent social gatherings that take place in his apartment.

Combining the unruffled, quotidian spell of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s dramas with the pertinent observation of Jia Zhangke’s contemporary themes, the film burns slowly until the moment when Hae-mi vanishes without a trace. It then gains momentum, moving confidently toward a surprising climax. The resplendent soundtrack, which includes a Miles Davis’ tune, and the naturalistic performances make a significant contribution to the success of this achingly poignant meditation on passion, in its strangest forms.