Burning ★★★★½

This is my first experience with Lee Chang-dong and I couldn't be more impressed. The film is a melting pot of regret, jealousy, despair and hopelessness, with a sense of intrigue thrown in to keep it all ticking along. This is about social and class oppression, human relationships, lives wasted- all that big adult stuff- carefully hidden behind a simple love-triangle.

Chang-dong moves things along at a leisurely pace, introducing us to our three main characters and only gradually revealing that there is more to this story than first appears. An unerring and unnerving feel of quiet dread bubbles just under the surface, constantly threatening to explode. Because of this, the languid nature of the story-telling never becomes a burden and in fact, even serves to calm and steady the nervous viewer.

As things develop and we begin to learn more about some characters, and leave others behind, Burning picks up its pace a little, building to a crescendo where both the unexpected and the expected managed to shock. It is all so contained within its world and three characters, and so controlled and steady by Chang-dong.

With a heavy focus on filming during sunrise and sunset hours, Chang-dong and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo craft what is one of the better looking films of 2018. Chang-dong explains that this is because the boundary between light and darkness during these times is reflective of the mystery of the seen and unseen of his movie. A beautifully fitting choice in a film so full of symbolism and allegories.

As much as I loved the film, a perfect score was narrowly missed due to my dislike for protagonist Jong-su, played with uncomfortable nervousness by Korean superstar Yoo Ah-in. Jong-su is even more unlikable than his rival, the mega-rich Ben, played with suitably smug dickishness by Steven Yeun. Ah-in delivers a strong performance, but the characterization of Jong-su prevented me from ever truly getting behind him. On the other hand, newcomer Jeon Jong-seo really impressed me as girl-in-the-middle Shin Hae-mi, despite her character essentially serving as a catalyst for the actions of the men in the film.

One of the best films of 2018, Burning is one of the great examples of film-making skill complimenting and elevating a great story-teller's work. It's also a great example of why the Academy's recent decision to not televise the awarding of Best Cinematography and Editing so terrible.

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