Burning

Burning ★★★★½

I've read two novels by Haruki Murakami and disliked both of them, so that Burning was based on a short story of his gave me some concerns, but thankfully the film is a world away from Murakami's tedious wish-fulfilment fantasies. In Seoul two acquaintances who grew up in the same village meet randomly on a street, Jong-su who is working as a delivery driver, and Hae-mi who is using income derived from promotional work to pay for plastic surgery and hopefully lead to her becoming an actress. The two fall into bed but she has a holiday to Africa lined up, so asks if Jong-su can feed her cat while she is away. This he does yet no pet ever materialises, and this is only the first of several events, or perhaps one should say non-events, that cast doubt in the viewer's mind as to what is real, what is a deliberate illusion and what might only be imagined. Jong-su is trying to become a novelist so looks for stories in the world, perhaps even to the extent of telling himself them, later perhaps misconstruing innocence for guilt because it "fits" a narrative. Hae-mi is trying to become an actress and shows off her talent for mime, which is, of course, imagining that something is there when there really is not, and this idea of imagination being taken for truth is the central theme around which Burning is constructed.

For example, Hae-mi's cat is like Schrödinger's, it is both there and not there, it all depends on the interpretation of the observer. She returns from Africa with the enigmatic Ben, an inscrutable man of unidentifiable wealth and who is so friendly and accommodating he seems sinister. He is now Hae-mi's lover and Jong-su compares him to the title character from The Great Gatsby, lamenting that Korea is full of them nowadays. Like Fitzgerald's novel, there is a strong element of class conflict to Burning. Ben's rich Gangnam socialite friends clearly look down on the two rubes from the countryside, and we wonder if Jong-su's suspicions about his wealthy rival are based on just that, rivalry and resentment rather than genuine evil actions. Does all that make Ben clearly guilty when a poorer man would be given the benefit of the doubt? Hae-mi speaks of the two types of hunger she observed in Kenya, the regular sort and the spiritual hunger, the feeling that our lives are empty. Jong-su looks askance at Ben, he seems nothing more than an empty shell, very much a Korean Gatsby but more enigmatic and less human.

There are certain recurring motifs throughout Burning that link the three main characters, such as fire and cupboards that contain mysteries. And the film is replete with things that are not what they seem to, or should be: greenhouses for life that are now full of death that must burn, a phone that rings yet no one ever speaks, and a well that possibly only exists in false or implanted memory. Overall Burning could be tighter and leaner as the best neo noirs tend to be. The fact that Jong-su's family farm is right on the border with North Korea is introduced but nothing more comes from that. Likewise, the backstory about his parents and his troubled and distant relationship with them in the present looks like its going to play a part in the narrative but then just doesn't. The first act also feels very slow, and perhaps the most Murakami with its depictions of mundane domesticity, but this evolves into a slow-building tension that ratchets up until the stunning climax.

I've not seen any of Lee Chang-dong's other films but I know he's an art house darling, and this is very slick looking movie with impressive location work, blocking and long takes. It places you in very distinct environments to represent that characters, rural simplicity for Jong-su, claustrophobic suburbia for Hae-mi and bland opulence for Ben. Hae-mi's dance just as daylight dies is as beautiful to watch as it was difficult to film, as such light only exists for a few minutes each day meaning it took weeks to capture that one scene. When the film was over I wasn't sure about it, but the more I think back on Burning the more I like it. It's a mystery that might not be a mystery and a love story that might not be a love story. It doesn't provide answers but gives much to think on. This is a film that would benefit a long conversation over a coffee afterwards and then probably a re-watch. Four stars for now but this could go up given more time away from it. Highly recommended.

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