Starring: Multi-hyphenate Yoo Ah-in, newcomer Jeon Jong-seo, The Walking Dead star Steven Yeun
Out of a typically terse story by the acclaimed Japanese writer Murakami comes Burning, a tense, expertly crafted mystery from South-Korean director Lee Chang-Dong.
The subject is less extreme than the filmmaker’s previous work, which has looked at everything from suicide and sexual assault to dementia, such as in his stunning 2010 film, Poetry. But his latest is no less unsettling because of its simpler ingredients and slicker surface.
It’s a ring of fire, where trouble is always rumbling and never far from the surface, revolving around a trio of phenomenal actors who perform a captivating dance.
The plot follows Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young graduate just back from his national service who is making a start on his novel – in the way most young graduates are. In the meantime, he has to tend to the family farm while his dad (who we never meet) faces multiple assault charges in court.
One day, he bumps into Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), an old school friend who claims he once rescued her from a well (an episode he can’t recall). The two are soon back at her flat, having awkward sex. Jong-su can’t quite believe his luck – there’s a suggestion throughout that he might have a little less life experience than we’d assume – but his fortunes are about to change.
Yoo Ah-in in Burning
Hae-mi takes an impromptu two-week trip to Kenya, leaving Jong-su to look after her cat (which never appears) and entertain himself (in the way most young men with too much time on their hands do), before returning with a new friend, Ben (Steven Yeun).
Moneyed, perfectly groomed, eerily self-possessed, Europeanised, Ben irritates Jong-su as one of the many 'Gatsbys' he sees popping up all over Korea. Despite his resentment, Jong-su tells him he loves Hae-mi. Ben, in turn, shares his hobby of burning down greenhouses – a revelation which, naturally, troubles the young farmer, along with the sudden unannounced disappearance of Hae-mi herself.
Like Ben, Burning plays its numerous cards close to its chest or, perhaps more accurately, puts together a delicate house of cards as it piles mystery on top of mystery. In one of the film’s most outstanding sequences, Hae-mi dances, topless, to Miles Davis’ 'Générique' while the two men look on. Is this an act of liberation or a desperate gesture for help? Is she waving or drowning?
Burning never quite answers these questions or shows its hand, but it holds back without leaving the audience weeping with frustration. There may be a touch of smoke and mirrors – the film, like the characters, hovers between the real and the imagined – but wafting over from the flames is that familiar whiff of toxic masculinity, fuelled by sexual longing and envy. But something else that might run deeper and last longer than that, too.
On one level, the film is a coming-of-age drama. The self-discovery Jong-su’s detective work leads him to is, in a sense, his greatest achievement, creative or otherwise. The conclusion he brings this particular tale to, though, shows that it’s completely out of his hands, as we realise it always has been.
|What||Burning film review|
01 Feb 19 – 01 Feb 20, TIMES VARY
|Price||£ determined by cinemas|
|Website||Click here for more information|