Burning

Burning ★★★★★

An extremely deliberate film that's best viewed blindly, with an open mind and a very high attention and patience level. If you are looking for outright excitement, don't bother. That's not the draw or aim for at least 2/3 of this viewing. Much of this is painted as a casual experience for the viewer as opposed to a straight line of exposition and escalating plot points. I won't be writing about the finer details of the plot too much here, but I do want to riff a bit below on how interesting it is as a character study and as a commentary on general human relations. Apart from that, there's a bit of a mystery/disappearance plot going on as the conflict endgame, but the plot development getting there feels very intentionally abstract and wandering. Most importantly, this is the type of film that is best experienced, or "lived in" as a viewer, instead of speculated about ad nauseam. Definitely watch it alone or with a quiet partner, and with minimal outside distraction.


Human interaction, chemistry and dynamics are so odd, if you really think about it. I love when a movie makes me think about why people respond to social qualities as we do. What is it that makes the mysterious, confident and assured so alluring? Why are we attracted to the sense of danger? This film sets out to voyeuristically place you in the near third-person perspective and peripheral headspace of a quiet, awkward and feeble protagonist who seems a bit socially off from the moment the film begins. When most films give you a suffering protagonist and want you to share their journey, the usual characertization method is one that feels placed within one of a few rigid archetypes: sometimes a truly virtuous do-gooder, or maybe an ugly duckling in coming-of-age mode, or perhaps some sort of standard antihero trope concerning a tough, sarcastic guy with bad tendencies or mannerisms, but a heart of gold. Yoo Ah-in's lead character really doesn't feel like any of these things. He's ostensibly a good guy, but we really don't know that much about him, and he does some seriously creepy, if ultimately harmless, things pretty quickly into the story. He's extremely aloof, to the point which heavily suggests his being on the spectrum, yet he's not given underdog triumph moments, respectable dialogue, or heroic glimmers to give the audience a willing reason to accept the protagonist role thrust upon him. Films are an escape from life and filmmakers generally design a protagonist as one for us to want to live through vicariously. This is not that. But... it is still fascinating to watch, for some reason that is hard to pin down.


For those who have survived my characterization babble and are still with me, the point I'm getting to is that this film (as slow as it is) sparks an immediate increase in active interest when Steven Yeun arrives on scene, because the film goes to great lengths to make Yeun's character stand out as being the "Most Interesting Man in the World" (Dos Equis style) from the moment he arrives and threatens our protagonist's potential relationship hopes. And yet, Yeun still does not set up as a conventional villain or adversary with his entrance to the film. He suggests danger rather than actually threatening it. The film probably intentionally creates uneasiness and frustration for the viewer, as we are drawn to another character that seemingly SHOULD be either the more interesting protagonist or a classic villain. And yet, we are trapped here attempting to empathize with a milquetoast and cowardly stick-in-the-mud, as he watches Yeun masterfully control every social situation in which he is placed. It's a rarely used focus trick to create this new dimension of "protagonist tension" for the viewer, as they watch the wheels slowly turn and try to figure out what each of the different lead characters is really thinking or intending. Now, I never thought I would see Glenn Rhee personify the idea of the rich male mega-alpha in this way, but it's a remarkably assured and magnetic performance. Jun Jong-seo (who was also awesome in a markedly different and psychotic role in The Call) is also continually captivating, a mysterious character whose intentions are hard to read. On the surface, her character is quirky, cute and seductive, but she poorly conceals a dark and depressing nature hidden not very far under the surface: a soul constantly searching for life meaning and answers in spite of her best efforts to exude happiness. I think her character is vitally important early in the film, before all of our main characters are given more to say and do, by providing just enough energy and spark of life to keep things moving.


As with most high end production Korean films in recent history, everything is shot beautifully and directed very precisely. As an American who has never been to South Korea, I have a real fascination with the way rural homes and landscapes are presented in these films. It's such an interesting intersection of kind of somewhat dumpy and cluttered housing squalor mixed with just the most beautiful and serene nature landscapes. Everything feels cozy. It is just a very different aesthetic and vibe from that of American rural living. We also get a bit of the city aesthetic too, so the film has a nice variety of locales to experience.


I really enjoyed the uniqueness of this film, the crazy mindf--k of an ending, and its approach to the characters. I will say that this type of slow, slow pacing is an acquired taste. Either you vibe with this thing or you don't. It won't hurt my feelings either way. To me, this feels like art. This isn't classical; this is jazz. Get messy with it, son!


I actually managed to write more about this than I thought I would. This was an impressively daring and odd film. I can't even say that I'd outright recommend it, but I, for one, will definitely be rewatching this in the future when this kind of melancholy mood sets in. It's coldly comforting. It feels so completely alien and so relatable at the same time. I have a hard time thinking of many other films in that vein. Lost in Translation, perhaps? Her? Nihilism is clearly a strong theme in the film, with Yeun's character Ben seeming to have many Tyler Durden-esque parallels, but I'm not sure I've grasped enough through just one viewing to dive into exactly how it is examined and the full extent of what the writer is trying to say.


10/10. A complicated but uniquely interesting watch and another win for Korean cinema.


P.S. I see your Audrey Horne flavored dance, Jun Jong-seo... and I appreciate you.

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