Burning ★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

It's been so long since I read Murakami's short story Barn Burning (collected in The Elephant Vanishes) that I barely remembered it and I assiduously avoided spoilers for this adaptation. Kind of unnecessary as it turns out, as it's all fairly predictable anyway. Lee Jong-su's initial discovery in the bathroom is a huge clue to what Ben is and the latter's revelation of his pyromaniacal hobby makes clear his M.O., albeit couched in metaphor. The central mystery was no real mystery at all. I spent a long two and a half hours watching the truth slowly (SLOWLY) dawning on Jong-su. I saw the story beats coming from a ways off - the cat, the watch, the banal social commentary... miles off, except for Haemi getting topless after sparking up, I'll admit that threw me for a loop.

I guess the mystery isn't really what the film's about though, it probably has more to do with the fundamental unknowableness of other people, the fallibility of memory, illusions and path-finding. There are only three actual blazes (one imagined, one pre-empted), so is Jong-su's imagination catching fire the real meaning of Burning? The final shot of the film has him sitting down to write his long-deferred novel. But it's a semantic buffet really, which is probably exactly the way Lee Chang-dong wants it. Style-wise, this reminded me of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, another master of cloaking vacuity in artful vagueness - the muted palette, refined camera work, portentous pacing. In examining the threat to social order posed by disaffected youth, Burning explores similar territory to Bright Future, along class fault lines. Jong-su can barely conceal his disdain for Ben, who for him, belongs to that inscrutable enclave of Korea's Gatsbys - young men of elusive means who live in plush apartments and drive around in Porsches, yawning and sneering at those beneath them. Also like Bright Future, it's pretty toothless and disingenuous.

Despite my misgivings about its substance, I can't deny it's a technically accomplished film - and well-acted too. Steven Yuen will only have strengthened his growing reputation with his portrayal of mannered sociopath Ben.

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