Burning ★★★★

There were times during this film that I felt I was a guest in someone else's house during a family argument. Lee Chang-dong is well up into the guts of an invasive self-assessment of South Korean society, and some of the stuff that he's digging out doesn't really feel like it's fair to put before a foreign audience. It's extremely difficult to imagine an American filmmaker doing the kind of hard introspection here without any sort of specific political agenda, and then marketing it overseas as an exemplar of Hollywood prestige. Burning's got an international soul, though. A Haruki Murakami story filtered through the Korean consciousness told by way of The Great Gatsby. All of which helped to make me feel less voyeuristic.

Thus, Hae-mi's (Jeon Jong-seo) dance scene marks an equator between the film's two halves, and embodies the sense of looking through the keyhole to see something worthwhile. The jazz score that suddenly takes hold along with the drugs feels like it's been lurking just below consciousness the entire film, and Hae-mi's exuberance that only the young and broke can summon up shines through. The color palette of the scene's sunset is the highlight of a film that features remarkable cinematography throughout, the young woman's silhouette the last missing element of a scene straight out of dreams. Like the light from the tower in Hae-mi's room, the light catches the scene perfectly for a brief moment, a unique sense of human grace framed by unmovable natural splendor that could only have come forth from this specific place. Inevitably, the moment collapses as entropy takes hold, the comedown visited upon us with harshly lit tears and fake tits. To Mr. Lee, this is South Korea, and I expect that quite a few people don't think he's wrong.

It's the film's outstanding sense of imagery, as it moves between city and country, that allows the story the space it needs to let the characters develop in a more subtle manner. Events move slowly, but the film doesn't feel slow since each shot is at the very least of visual interest, and occasionally beautiful as a tableau of the city landscape comes into view or a sweeping scene of the timeless village appears. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) gradually moves from a person to whom things happens to an active agent in the film's increasingly dire events. Hae-mi adds just a little bit of substance at a time until she's comfortably far away from the grating vendor booth girl that starts the film off. Ben (Steven Yeun) somehow becomes something of a less sinister presence even as it becomes more and more likely to Jong-su that he's done something horrifying. The people in this film are like watching an aquarium, the flowing movement in character the more artful for not having some sort of calculated, designed grand plan behind it all. The fish simply swim. The people simply follow their nature.

The ending is exceptionally bleak, and rightfully earned. While there a few little clues to tantalize those inclined as to what the truth of the matter may or may not be, what Ben did or did not do has no import. There is no such thing as security in this film's world, no lasting safe harbor. The Gatsby edifice contains in its code its own destruction, and in this case the emptiness at the heart of affairs pulls so hard that it will drag other people into orbit around it in order to finish someone off. Jong-su's desolate path before him for the rest of his life leads him to a shorter, more condensed version of it. Ben discovers that even when wealth is your country's God, a rich man is not the same as Mammon. Hae-mi was destined to be consumed. That the last imagery of the film is a naked, exposed man, shivering with a combination of cold, rage, despair, and god knows what else, is fitting.

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