Burning

Burning ★★★★

Regrettably downgraded on second viewing, though it's still easily among the best of the year. Whereas before, any criticisms seemed rather paltry, the film's limitations are clearer to me now, particularly in its first half, which seems constrained by its studied thematic explication, in keeping with the more florid "literary" qualities of Secret Sunshine. Lee's direction (the shifts between subjective-objective; from long-takes to surprising cuts and vice versa) and the three main performances (particularly Jeon Jong-seo's barely-concealed, fire-walk-with-me anguish as Haemi) are still superb, but there are fewer diverting pleasures than would be necessary to elevate this to a masterpiece. Didn't fully realize the extent to which the first scene—with Jongsu and Haemi on a smoke break, during which he offhandedly says "I write" when asked what he does—anticipates Ben's condescending "I play" at the restaurant, as well as the woozy, stoned-out scene at twilight. Then again, those parallels could also be filed under the script's interlocking "neatness."

But any reservations begin to dissipate with the three scenes around the midpoint: the discomfiting "Dance of Great Hunger" at the bar; the straightforward in-out camera movement in the club amidst coruscating bursts of colour; and then the topless dance during which Haemi realizes her desire to "vanish into the sunset." From there, Mowg's score takes over as we slip deeper and deeper into Jongsu's subjectivity—so much so that the later dinner party and trip to the garage could almost play like Zodiac's basement scene, depending on where one's intuitions lean at that point. That is, until the end, with yet another one-two-three punch: the only shot of Jongsu writing a story—we see him typing earlier, but it turns out to just be for a petition—which pointedly pulls out to show him in his own bubble in a corner of the frame; the sole shift away from Jong-su's slack-jawed omnipresence, with the scene of Ben putting makeup on a woman in his apartment; then the final scene, which seems to unfold in a kind of liminal space of its own. Understandable that so many adulatory write-ups emphasize the of-the-moment rage that courses through this, but the structural audacity of Lee's script—with its fundamental questions of authorship—is what lingers. Not sure if Lee has indicated any such connection, but whether inadvertently or not, this seems to pull almost as much from Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" as from Murakami's short story.

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