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Film review: Burning

Film & TV

Inspired by a short story by Haruki Murakami, South Korean writer and director Lee Chang-dong’s darkly beautiful, sensual and disturbing portrayal of alienation and loss is so mesmerising and immersive that two and a half hours pass by as if in a dream.

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Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) is working as a delivery man in Seoul when he runs into Haemi (Jong Seo Jun), a young woman he knows from his childhood in rural Paju, and for whom he develops a crush.

Both seemingly lost in the city, they take refuge in one other. He dreams of her while she, restless, dreams of seeing the world.

When Haemi decides to travel to Africa she asks Jongsu to look after her cat while she’s gone. Jongsu moves back to his old neighbourhood after his father, a politically-active blue-collar worker, is imprisoned, and he commutes back and forth to her apartment in his father’s battered old truck. Whenever he visits her tiny box-room of a home — soothing himself in her absence, as well as to feed the cat — the animal is never to be seen.

On her return he eagerly heads to the airport and finds her with Ben (Steven Yeun), a handsome young man she met while travelling. Living a luxurious lifestyle funded by ambiguous means in the wealthy Seoul suburb of Gangnam, the mysterious Ben soon commandeers Haemi’s attention.

One evening, Ben drives Haemi in his Porsche to Paju to Jongsu’s battered old house. While Haemi is asleep after a night of beer and smoking joints, Ben reveals his hobby to Jongsu: he likes to set greenhouses on fire. When Haemi disappears, Jongu’s quest to discover what happened to her moves the film into thriller territory, and the tension leads to a surreal and shocking denouement.

Inspired by Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, Chang-dong deftly moulds the Japanese writer’s literary hallmarks to his own ends. Going beyond references to being trapped in empty wells, lost cats, jazz and running, the director magnifies Murakami’s strange moods of alienation, loss and loneliness to great effect in his portrayal of a divided Korea.

Burning lights up the fault lines that run through Korean society, not only along the political border between north and south, but also along the split between the haves and have-nots, the ruling elite and rural working classes.

The three superbly cast and played leads each represent tones of dissonance. Jongsu’s ramshackle home half an hour away from Seoul is in an area of rural decline where propaganda constantly blasts from loudspeakers at the border with North Korea. Ben lives in a luxurious apartment in Gangnam, the wealthy suburb of Seoul where young socialites sip lattes and frequent gourmet restaurants.

Haemi, living in her tiny city apartment with a map of the world above her bed, talks of a dance from the African sub-continent she calls “Little Hunger Big Hunger”. The little hunger is that of the belly, she says, while the great hunger is the one that comes from seeking the meaning of life.

The luscious and elegantly poetic cinematography by Hong Kyung-Pyo is the perfect polish on a film already garlanded with numerous well-deserved awards, including the FIPRESCI Critics’ Prize for Best Film at Cannes. Burning could well be one of the best movies of 2019.

Burning is showing at Palace Nova Eastend.

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