Burning

Burning ★★★★½

You don't know, and that's the point. You might never get to know. The thing about treating life as a story, about seeing lives as stories, is that you don't know what kind of story you've got until you've written it--that sometimes it gets away from you, becomes someone else's story. Or sometimes the story gets away from you, the people get away from you. There are worse things than realizing someone you thought was important to your story wasn't actually, though, that they were just passing through, that you were on opposite sides of the river, or that you messed it up, somehow. One worse thing is not knowing, really, if you were stuck writing in your own head, or if you should blame the world, or blame yourself.

I haven't seen any of Lee Chang-dong's films before this one, but I have read the short story that Burning is based on, and he takes as effective an approach to Murakami's prose style as I could imagine--stretching out the stillness and creating a beautiful, but stifling mundanity that manages to be both comforting and limiting, so that when something off-kilter hits the characters, it's genuinely unclear if they should run towards it or away with it. Cutting back on the exposition also helps--in one level, this is a fascinating cat-and-mouse game, beautifully filmed, where it's often unclear who the cat is. (Literally, at one point)--on another level, it seems to me to function as a critique of that kind of story, of noir daydreams of men falling in over their heads and being the Good Guy as opposed to the Bad Guy--the fact that the exposition is cut out makes it possible for that ambiguity to exist in the film, and that's important, I think, because it's entirely possible (to avoid spoilers, obviously) that an apartment at about the 2/3rds point of this film is empty for a reason that might be unsettling, but posits our slack-jawed protagonist (Jong-Seo Jun) as a real Good Guy, or it might be empty for an entirely different reason that highlights the fact he's not really that Good after all.

Maybe it's best not to have to decide.

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