Tatler Review: Burning (2018)
One can easily say that Burning (2018) is about a love triangle between Jongsu (Yu a-in), Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), and Ben (Steven Yeun) – but that would be a disservice to the film’s narrative complexities. Adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story entitled “Barn Burning”, the film explores a rekindled friendship between Jongsu and Hae-mi who were once childhood neighbours in the rural town of Paju, South Korea. Returning from a sojourn to Africa, Hae-mi introduces Jongsu to her new friend, Ben.
Ben drives a Porsche, lives in a luxury apartment in the heart of Gangnam, and speaks eloquently – at one point, Jongsu remarks that he is just like The Great Gatsby – incredibly wealthy, suspicious yet endearingly enigmatic.
One afternoon, Hae-mi and Ben visit Jongsu at his Paju house. They all drink and smoke weed together as they observe the dimming sunlight. While Hae-mi dozes off, Ben reveals to Jongsu that he has a penchant for burning abandoned greenhouses and has a plan of burning one that is close by. The two bond over Ben’s fascinating hobby, but soon after, the sun disappears from the horizon and it is time for Ben and Hae-mi to leave.
The next morning, Jongsu locates all the abandoned greenhouses around the area, hoping to catch Ben in the act during his next burning. Days go by and no greenhouses burn down, Jongsu doesn’t hear back from Hae-mi or Ben. Driven by confusion, he drives to Gangnam to confront Hae-mi but finds that she’s left town; he never sees her again.
Burning unravels at a slow pace and at times it may feel a bit dragging. The story seems to see-saw between mystery and romance, but it is not without beautiful shots of the Paju landscape and the scenic streets of Gangnam.
The film’s colour palette shifts from warm summer tones to low-saturated winterscapes – a treatment to possibly embody the filmic regression of Jongsu’s character – once exuberant and enthralled with love, he becomes obsessive, perplexed, and lost in Hae-mi’s absence.
The film’s ending feels like a brisk turn in pace and mood: Jongsu and Ben meet at a wayside in Paju during a snowy evening. The colours are dim and the mood is heavy. Jongsu confronts Ben and stabs him multiple times, now resolute in his realization that he killed Hae-mi. The scene has little to no scoring, leaving the raw sounds of stabbing and struggle to fill the cinema. Jongsu shoves Ben’s body in his Porsche (together with his blood-soaked clothes) and proceeds to burn it. He drives away and the credits roll.
Burning successfully encapsulates Haruki Murakami’s short story and writing style. Throughout his many novels, Murakami always employs sparse yet almost dreamy language. His sentences are short but filled with stark imagery, leaving the reader with a lot to reflect on. The film progresses slowly yet no detail is left to chance. The lead, Jongsu, feels difficult to sympathize with and is quite reserved. This is the same for most of Murakami’s lead characters in novels like Norwegian Wood, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, or Sputnik Sweetheart.
Murakami’s protagonists always feel incomplete and internally tortured, which is something we can say about Jongsu. One is prompted to ask: does the ending redeem him? In killing Ben, is Jongsu absolved of his own personal ghosts and struggles? However, the beauty of the film lies in its sophisticated restraint; just like its textual antecedent, a lot is omitted and questions unfold endlessly.
Director Lee Chang Dong does a great job in making the most out of the three characters. The film feels like an emotional rollercoaster and once you get off, you’re left with a strange almost eerie feeling from the experience. Blunt, dark, and cinematic – Burning is a must-see for those who enjoy a good dramatic thriller. But fair warning, the story unfolds with little speed and the thrill is more psychological than anything else.
If you've always been a fan of Murakami, perhaps you'll find that this film offers a similar experience. Gloomy and philosophical, there is a lot to be engaged with in Burning. With what seems to be a straightforward narrative, it is delightfuly surprising just how complex the film can be. It asks its audience: just how far will you go for someone you love?
Burning (2018) is available for viewing in Philippine cinemas thanks to the QCinema International Film Festival.