Burning ★★★★★

"Should I forget that there isn't a cat?"

Schrödinger's cat, meet Boil. Though, my cat Blackjack was asleep during this whole movie.

...or was he?

It's been almost six months since I first saw the amazing Korean film Burning (and almost exactly a year since its Cannes premiere), a movie so marvelous that my only surprise was that I still liked two other movies from 2018 just barely more than this. So, it's time to check out Lee Chang-dong's ambitious slow burn thriller -- which inexplicably missed an Oscar nomination -- and catch it another time to see if it holds up.

Spoiler: it does.

This is the third film I'm watching as part of a little film club -- Josh, George, Mr_Macaroon, Brock, Zeke, and Stuart are just some in our private group, others not on LB but in another social media page we share -- and even though I ran to see this one back when it was first released and took the drive to Philly, I couldn't wait for an excuse to watch again. Despite that unforgivable Oscar snub, Burning was nominated for the Palme d'Or and won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes, so this rewatch will coincide with the beginning of the Cannes Film Festival tonight (time zones be damned).

This enigmatic movie, based on a Haruki Murakami short story named "Burn Burning" from his collection The Elephant Vanishes, follows Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an aspiring writer whose father is imprisoned and who encounters an old acquaintance Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) while doing odd jobs in Paju. After not remembering her, she admits she had some plastic surgery and they hit it off; she invites him to her tiny apartment as she discusses a trip to Africa, hoping he will care for her cat Boil while she's gone, despite never once seeing the animal. He also has to tend to his father's farm. After a prolonged absence -- during which Jong-su pleasures himself in her apartment habitually -- Hae-mi returns with a male friend Ben (Steven Yeun), a strange and apparently wealthy young man seemingly in a relationship with a smitten Hae-mi. A conversation between Ben and Jong-su, in which an odd and dangerous hobby is confessed, changes the trajectory of the story to dark and mysterious angles, as Jong-su comes to question Ben's motives and cannot help but insert himself into ever more terrifying conflagrations, both metaphorical and real.

One long paragraph of detail for the plot is not nearly enough, but in a way it's also perhaps too much. It's better just to take it in, as the pace may appear slow; in fact, each moment is quite purposeful in the middle of the unwinding mystery. In a truly excellent review from a user I recently followed and will continue to highlight, a comparison is made that I wasn't ready to make myself last year but with which I now agree:

I hate it when people make comparisons to David Lynch. I really do. But I can't help it; there is something genuinely Lynchian about how Burning crafts a world of terrifyingly nonspecific danger. There's the masterful sound design; the never-ending ringing of the phone no one answers, the eternally blaring North Korean propaganda (Jong-su's house is just at the border), the crackling fire, the clanging of the score. In the film's most astonishing scene, Hae-mi, Ben and Jong-su are visiting the latter's farm, and have gotten stoned. With little prompting, Hae-mi removes her top and begins to dance to a tune only she -- and we -- can hear. As the camera moves in tune with her, it's like we can see her entire life opening up before us. By the end of the dance, she's crying. Jong-su is enraptured, unable to comprehend what just happened. Ben yawns.

Mike knows his shit. Follow him. Also, this film is literally 99 cents on Amazon rental right now. Watch it. It's straight fire. (Sorry.)

I also stand by everything I said in my first review, including the aforementioned scene and its use of a Miles Davis song that once again left me dumbstruck. This movie rewards you (Yoo?) tremendously for having the patience to absorb the first hour and a half, then will crush you like a smoldering ember.

"It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Added to The 50 Best (non-documentary) Films of 2018.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.

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