BFI London Film Festival: Burning

Directed by Lee Chang-dong
Starring Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo and Steven Yeun
Screening at LFF October 19th and 20th 2018

by Richard Hamer

From master director Lee Chang-dong, Burning is a richly layered, beguiling relationship drama-cum-thriller that defies easy explanation, and inspires complicated feelings.

Things begin pleasantly enough. Unemployed writer Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) is trawling downtown Seoul when he bumps into his childhood friend Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo). There’s an obvious attraction, but the possibility of romance is cut-short by her imminent trip to Africa. While she’s gone, Jongsu spends his days feeding her (unseen, potentially non-existent) cat, or hanging out in the dilapidated farmhouse he’s inherited from his soon to be incarcerated father.

Haemi eventually returns, but not alone: On the trip she met Ben (Steven Yuen), a wealthy, confident young man whom – on the surface at least – Jongsu cannot compete with. As they embark on a supremely awkward three-way friendship, Jongsu’s jealousy slowly builds.

From such straightforward roots, Burning morphs into an increasingly esoteric thriller based around the emptiness and rage of young men, and the class divides that pit them against each other. It’s a slow-burner (ha ha), concerned less with what misdeeds Ben and Jongsu may have committed, and more with toying with the very notion that we can ‘know’ anything about anyone. Burning is an intentionally frustrating unpacking of thriller tropes, daring us to form a narrative from the vaguest of clues, and the most unreliable of memories. This could be a story of arson – even murder – but just like Haemi’s cat, we are left to infer their existence from secondary sources.

All the while, director Lee and cinematographer Hong Kyung-Po let us (and their characters) lose themselves in gorgeous sunsets, the grand sweep of beautiful countryside, and the play of birds in the night sky. Burning is just gorgeous to look at, it’s mood reflective, the slow build of tension ever-shifting, just under the surface.

But if there is one major criticism here, it’s that Lee overplays his hand in this regard, struggling to maintain the tension, and the ambiguity, over its protracted hundred and forty-eight minute running time. When not just the answers, but the questions themselves are as amorphous as shapes in fog, it can be difficult to maintain interest. In short, Burning can get a little boring.

But boredom is a transient emotion, not to be trusted, and for all its imperfections this is a movie that will stay with you long after far more ‘exciting’ thrillers have been forgotten. It’s difficult to let go: There may be no real answers to the questions Burning poses, but you keep on looking all the same. As film fans do, as humans do, hoping to take meaningless tragedy and ambiguous signs, and turn them into a story that sets the world straight.


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