Burning

Burning ★★★★

My first film by Lee Chang-Dong. Although I'm not familiar with the director's work, I've read several books by Haruki Murakami and couldn't help thinking of this film in terms of how well it adapts the feeling of reading his work to the screen. In general, it does a very good job of it! Murakami's writing has a subtly unsettling feeling to it that stems from overlong descriptions of banal activities, characters being surprisingly frank about their feelings, and plenty of unanswered questions about the narrative itself. This film has all of those things, as well as several other minor Murakami-isms - a disappearing cat, extended sequences focusing on cooking, a protagonist who is a largely unemployed writer, etc. As good as this movie is, I think it ultimately shows that you can't get the full Murakami experience any other way except by reading it, because I think, more than anything else, the weird feeling I get from him comes from his prose specifically. I have a hard time imagining anybody doing a much better job adapting his work for the screen than here, and yet I also get the feeling from this that no film will ever quite capture the essence of his written word, and part of that is because I think his stories themselves aren't actually really his strong suit. He hits the same notes so often you can play Haruki Murakami Bingo every time he comes out with a new book, and many of his Murakami-isms are things I associate with average-at-best male writers, especially the way he writes women, which rarely manages to transcend 'sexual objects'.
Anyway, to get away from the status of this film as an adaptation, this movie is visually stunning - easily worth watching for the visuals alone. The score, to me, wasn't anything to really write home about, as a lot of the movie has none and, when it does, it seems to use the same track, or variations on it, a lot of the time. There's one scene that memorably uses Miles Davis's score to Elevator to the Gallows, though, so that's cool. The performances in this are really solid - like most Americans, I only knew Steven Yuen going into this movie, and of course he's great and of course it's fun to see him in such a different role from what I've seen him do before, but Yoo Ah-in and Jeon Jong-Seo are both excellent in the other two lead roles (Joo Ah-In is really the star of this film, and he fills the role of the brooding, mechanical Murakami protagonist quite well). Overall I like this movie, although I think there will be plenty of people who find it on the slow side - as much as I enjoyed the visuals and acting, I thought it was slow myself. Frankly, I've also never been huge on Murakami's love for ambiguity in his narrative, because I can never really tell exactly what he intends to accomplish with it, and this film is no different where that's concerned. Ultimately minor gripes, though - I'm glad I was able to see this movie.