Burning ★★★★½

It is my strong belief that Lee Chang-Dong's Burning should be reviewed in the context of the following three films: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly, all of which are connected to one another by the theme of a woman going missing. However, it has to be said that Lee’s film’s relationship to Hitchcock’s genre progenitor is cursory at best, because The Lady Vanishes wasn’t interested in using its novel narrative template involving paranoia and skilful manipulation of the audience to evoke anything more than basic, visceral entertainment.

Therefore, more attention has to be paid to Antonioni’s and Farhadi’s films which deliberately use this notion to tell a completely different story while treating the Hitchcockian mystery as a workhorse to keep the viewer glued to the screen as they slowly lay their cards on the table. This is how Antonioni managed to turn his take on The Lady Vanishes into a complex psychological study about loneliness and sorrow and how Farhadi commented on the extremely contrived nature of Iranian culture which is both conservative and accommodating on the most basic levels.

Burning attempts to accomplish similar goals by weaving a deliciously compelling narrative about a poor young man, a beautiful girl who suddenly disappears and a mysterious rich playboy who ticks all the boxes of a high-functioning sociopath only to pull the rug from under you at the last second and make you realize you have been watching something different to what you thought the film would be. That’s because the mystery, suspenseful, deliberate and engaging as it is, is merely a tool used by the filmmaker to get under your skin and leave you pondering themes the film tackled right under your nose which you willingly dismissed as a distraction to the mystery of a missing girl and a strangely seductive billionaire psychopath. In fact, once the filmmaker lays out his complete thesis in a stirring, visceral and immediate finale, it becomes apparent that it doesn’t really matter what happened to the girl. She is irrelevant and so is her fate.

It turns out that Burning isn’t a murder mystery or a paranoid thriller that manipulates our perspective to stage a Hitchcockian twist; it is way smarter than that. It is a nuanced study on the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, the pent-up frustrations rising within the neglected castes of one of the most highly developed societies in the world and the sad realization that eventually these desperate frustrations boil over. And the mystery element is used explicitly to allow the filmmaker the time to acclimate to all the characters, spend some time in their worlds and perhaps to stew in their own obsessions together with them.

I suppose one could ask whether the same could be accomplished without pulling wool over our eyes and deceiving us so profoundly. Of course, but the effect of the film would be completely different. I think it was imperative for Lee to be able to set the board without drawing our attention and revealing all the pieces at once and hence staging a knockout blow that brings us down to our knees and leaves us stirring with the film for weeks on end.

This is perhaps where I should address the film’s connection with another 2018 release, Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger, which also attempts to use a promise of a genre story – a gothic horror in this case – to lure the viewer into a similar discussion about the obsolescence of upper classes and their perceived pauperization by the invention of the welfare state which brought countless millions out of abject poverty and onto par with the rich in terms of rights and obligations. In essence, Burning and The Little Stranger are conceptually related to one another, but one of them is decidedly better than the other. I think this difference boils down to the effectiveness of the narrative conceit and compelling execution. I think that if both films had their ‘secret angle’ completely excised from the narrative, Burning would still work as a very competent genre story while The Little Stranger would still infuriate me. Perhaps it comes down to a personal bias towards post-Hitchcockian templates, but I am of the opinion that Abrahamson’s film relies on a gamble that the audience would go along for nearly two hours as he subjects them to an utterly languid and uninteresting ghost story while he tries to set the stage for his grand coup de grace that pissed me off instead of bringing me to my knees.

It just goes to show that pulling off a stunt that effectively involves hiding an entire narrative in plain sight requires complete commitment to all of its constituent components. And Lee Chang-Dong's Burning is a great example of reducing this philosophy to practice. It succeeds both as a compelling paranoid thriller and as a surgical deconstruction of the divides within modern societies in spite of its somewhat excessive running time.

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