Burning is the first high-profile foreign language film release in the UK this year (it arrives with 27 international festival awards including the Critics Prize at Cannes). It opened on just 34 screens and so I had to make a 2 hour train trip to Sheffield to see it. Picturehouses in Bradford haven’t, as far as I’m aware, shown any foreign language films yet this year. Fortunately for me, not only was Burning a riveting watch but I could stay on and see one of the films touring under the Japan Foundation banner later in the day. Well done Showroom for putting these on.
I tried to avoid reading about Burning before the screening. All I knew was that it was loosely based on a story by Haruki Murakami. I had noted and then forgotten that director Lee Chang-dong was responsible for the fabulous film Poetry that I greatly enjoyed in 2011. The new film focuses on three central characters. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a young man in his twenties doing casual work when he meets Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo) who claims she was at school with him ten years ago. She’s since had plastic surgery she tells him. “I’m pretty now. You once called me ugly.” The pair appear to bond immediately but Hae-mi is about to go on an adventure holiday in Africa. She asks Jong-su to look after her cat and he complies diligently. But when Hae-mi returns she is accompanied by a wealthy man she met in Nairobi, ‘Ben’ (Steven Yuen), a few years older. The trio begin an uncomfortable relationship. I won’t detail any more plot spoilers because the narrative transforms slowly into a form of mystery thriller in its second half.
Jong-su is the central character and he is in every scene so he is effectively the narrator. Perhaps unsurprisingly we learn that at college he studied creative writing and that he wants to write a novel – but as yet he doesn’t know what the story will be. His family is ‘fragmented’. His mother left home many years ago and his father has ‘anger issues’ and is about to be convicted of assault. His sister has also gone so Jong-su is on his own in the farmhouse on the outskirts of Paju City some 90 minutes north of Seoul and close to the border with North Korea. Although I haven’t read the Murakami short story, I did recognise something of the tone of his writing and the sense of loneliness and alienation. Murakami is also well-known for his interest in Western literature and the relationship between Jong-su and Ben is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith with Ben as a ‘Tom Ripley’ character (though in Highsmith, Ripley tends to be the central character). When Ben asks Jong-su which writer he admires, he replies William Faulkner, which doesn’t augur well.
Jong-su also tells Hae-mi that Ben and his wealthy friends are ‘Gatsbys’. This comment points to an analytical subtext. We don’t know how Ben earns the money which pays for his swish apartment in Seoul and his Porsche. The actor Steven Yuen is Korean-American and seen to great effect in Sorry to Bother You (US 2018) and various US TV series. One reviewer suggests that Yuen speaks ‘perfect’ Korean and no doubt for local audiences there are minor details like this that make the characters much richer symbols. At one point Jong-su visits a large Catholic church. I couldn’t work out why but this is another example of a clue about a character’s background which might only be apparent to a Korean audience. Jong-su is no mug, but his demeanour suggests that he is seemingly not ‘with it’. With his mouth hanging open and a bemused/bewildered look at times, he openly states that the world is a mystery to him, but this masks his intelligence and determination. According to Wikipedia, Yoo Ah-in, the most experienced of the actors playing the leads, is something of a ‘youth icon’ in Korea. Jun Jong-seo gives an amazing performance as Hae-mi, especially since this is her first film role.
Burning is 148 minutes long. This is not unusual for South Korean films and I was fully engaged for the whole film – in fact, I was surprised when the film ended, I thought that there might be more. (Having said that, the ending is perfectly fine, I just wasn’t expecting it.) It does seem to be a problem for some American audiences as revealed in IMDb User comments. These call the film slow and boring. They couldn’t be more wrong. The narrative moves slowly but it does so with increasing mystery and tension. The cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo is excellent, as you might expect from someone who has worked consistently with some of the best South Korean directors. The opening shot of the film is a close-up of the door (of a truck or a container) with just a glimpse of a view down the street on the right-hand side of the screen from where Jong-su appears. Now I think about it, it is an ironic ‘pre-echo’ of the last sequence in the film. I enjoyed the film’s score as well and I noted in the credits that it includes something from Miles Davis’ score for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Lift To The Scaffold, France 1958).
You might reasonably ask why the film is titled ‘Burning’. The Murakami story is titled ‘Barn Burning’ and at one point Ben tells Jong-su that he has a secret hobby that involves burning derelict greenhouses. Jong-su dreams about a burning greenhouse. The dream is not heavily signalled and other ‘events’ in the film may also be dreams. It’s one of those narratives in which the ‘reader’ can never be sure of the ‘truth’ of statements. That may irritate some readers and intrigue others. It all worked for me and if you are lucky enough to live within a reasonable distance of one of the few cinemas showing the film, I’d strongly recommend making the trip. West Yorkshire fans – it’s coming to Square Chapel in Halifax on 16-19 February.