mikkel abel’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Do you understand? It's metaphorical. My example, it's a metaphor. I mean, it's uh... it's symbolic".
- Martin, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017)
The first time I watched Lee Chang-dong's BURNING (2018) was four days ago. I had never seen a film by the director, but after this particular film received a lot of buzz earlier at this year's Cannes festival, I became very intrigued. Not just because I'm generally fond of Asian cinema, or the fact that I read my first novel (NORWEGIAN WOOD) by Haruki Murakami at the time I heard about BURNING. No, I just had a special feeling about the film. Saw the poster, some stills and read a short synopsis that said it was about a guy, a girl, and a second guy with a mysterious secret. That's all I knew. So after six months I finally got the oppurtunity to see the film and I rushed to the cinema. And let me put it shortly: I was blown away. It turned out to be everything I had dreamed of, and more, and by the time the end credits hit so did what felt like a gut wrenching punch to my stomach. I went home, thought about the film constantly, reflected on every frame and piece of dialogue. Like the main character, Jong-Su, I became obsessed with solving the mystery.
Now, four days later I rushed back to the cinema to see BURNING again. I just couldn't let it go. Having now seen the film twice within these days I can put it like this: BURNING is one of the best films I have ever seen. Lee Chang-dong's masterpiece has done what only one other film has ever done to me - that film being THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), which also happens to be my favourite film of all time - It left an eerie feeling in my stomach. It mesmerized me like nothing else. It made me think endlessly. It scared me. It amazed me. It gave me sweaty palms. It did everything only the greatest films are capable of doing.
BURNING puts the burn in slow-burn and starts off with a conventional romance between two people. But when the relationship shifts from two people to a love triangle, the narrative slowly goes from romantic drama to grim thriller. Throughout the film Lee Chang-dong playfully teases the audience by making us both believe and question everything. Everytime you think you've solved the mystery, it takes a turn and burns all expectations and assumptions. With subtle symbolism and a sublime control of narrative progression, the director makes sure that nothing is like it seems. There are so many ways to interpret the many themes BURNING explores. Is it about a generation of youth that is ready to burst in an explosion of savage rage? A social realistic portrayal of a nation's obsession with power and (plastic)beauty? Or just a portrayal of a psychopath in the like of AMERICAN PSYCHO? (2000). For every question there's an equivocal answer.
It's rare that a film is soaked in atmosphere and succeeds in creating an eerie, ambigious feeling the same way as BURNING does. Like Michelangelo Antonioni's BLOW-UP (1966) and major works of the 1960's art cinema alike, BURNING uses the idea of subjective perception and the need to find meaning in a meaningless world. Reality and fiction becomes one and it's not without symbolic meaning that Jong-su dreams of being a writer, while Hae-mi performs the art of mime play. Reality is what you make it out to be. BURNING constantly borders on this world of magic realism, which also characterizes the works of Murukami, with the world of cynicism that sparked a renaissance in South Korean film production (see Park Chan-wook for further example).
Now, I don't mind if one should find BURNING bad. I get it. The film is slow and some parts require a level of patience. It's okay if one didn't buy into the story. However, I do mind if one says that it's shallow or the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. Because if one does, they are wrong. Or as Ben would say: they are not seeing what's right in front of them. Personally, I could write a Master's Thesis about how much there is to get from the film - how every frame, line of dialogue and action is a bearer of meaning - but I'll keep it short for now.
BURNING is about love. BURNING is about finding meaning, whether it's supposed to be there or not. BURNING is about emotions and how to deal with them. BURNING is especially about anger. BURNING is about social relations. BURNING is about Western and Eastern society. BURNING is about fiction and reality. It's about symbolism, meaning and metaphors. BURNING is about believing. BURNING is about that bass you feel in your body when both good and bad happens. BURNING is about the nature of human. BURNING is about life and the act of being. BURNING is about everything essential to life.
When everything is burned to the ground and the ending of the film explodes in a sea of flames - both literally and metaphorically - one thing should be clear:
BURNING is a masterpiece and to me one of the best films that has ever been made.