LFF 2018 Burning Review
Burning is a solid example of the superior qualities, which foreign language films can have over Hollywood’s formula. This is a motion picture centered just around three characters and the powerful dynamic between them. At the same time, it uses its cityscape, countryside and nature backgrounds to empower the drama. This is a thrilling, engrossing, visually transportive, completely focused and original work.
Directing, script, acting, cinematography and music work seamlessly together to define the protagonist’s passion fairly early on and continue increasing the tension of the drama until the very end. The story is told without any familiar tricks and a lot of realism, which always feels fresh. It is a film that takes its time and yet, it never bores you. Not only do viewers get lost in the experience; they embrace it and eventually – love it.
A Fascinating Trio of Characters and Performances
The story follows Lee Jong-su (played by Yoo Ah-in), a young guy who falls in love with a girl, Shin Hae-mi (played by Jeon Jong-seo). A very unique love triangle is formed when Ben (played by Steven Yeun), a mysterious wealthy young man befriends Shin Hae-mi. Don’t let the familiar plot element from so many cliched romantic plots give you the wrong impression. Those three have a relationship that is anything but ordinary.
The performances are extremely subtle. Yoo Ah-in impressively steps into the shoes of the honest and pure-hearted poor boy. Jeon Jong-seo’s character is more difficult to pull off. It is a bold, careless girl that loves to be left at the mercy of chance and let life take her in a random direction. Steven Yeun transmits the necessary confidence and mystery, essential for a character that is as calm but at the same as complex as Ben. The casting is on point and the trio’s chemistry is excellent – it can be felt before the actors have even delivered their lines.
Unspoken Feelings and the Clever Build-Up of Tension
One of the very first remarkable things that will intrigue the viewer is the fact that the feelings that these characters have for each other are not obvious (apart for the evident affection of Lee Jong-su towards Shin Hae-mi). This is a writing choice that not only boasts the drama but is also impressively realistic. Nothing is blatantly stated. The writers don’t find an excuse to clear out our doubts – they find a way to turn the mystery to their advantage and make the scene even more engrossing. Every time the trio meets, the film soars because we are in a constant search for answers – how do they feel about each other, how are they going to react, how are they going to try to get the things they want?
Achieving A Lot with Very Little
The film is a 2-and-a-half-hour drama, filled with prolonged dialogue scenes and as little exciting action as you can possibly imagine. So clearly acclaimed director Lee Chang-dong has done a lot of things extremely right here. The film-maker allows every little detail of the simple situations in which the characters find themselves in to sink in. He doesn’t cut until we have felt it all. At the same time, the background of the shot is always rich – whether we are talking about a gorgeous sunset, a South Korean city vista or the lonely, cold countryside.
That is not to say that the whole film is just an intimate portrayal of a boy’s unusual romantic journey with a girl. There are moments, more emotional, dream-like, even scary instances when very specific, art-like shots are selected. The result however is the same – if a character is stunned by the image of the naked girl in front of him, the camera stays on his face until we feel like blushing ourselves. If a character is having a nightmare, the unnerving imagery remains on-screen until we have felt the chills up our spine. Simply said, the film is a blatant depiction of the film-maker’s giant talent. He doesn’t need shootouts, screaming, shots of people running or massive production designs to hit hard. He achieves so much with so little. The director shows us exactly what we need within the possibilities of this story in order to make us feel what he wants – no more and definitely not less, because frankly it doesn’t get more minimalist than this.
A Well-Crafted, Emotionally Charged Unravelling of a Mystery
The film is a massive success in its less naturalistic aspect and that is the story’s mystery. The script is bold in the sense that it lets the audience figure out the events that have unfolded off-screen as well as the characters’ emotions and decisions without them speaking them out loud, like it is the case with many Hollywood pictures. The character of Ben is the vessel that carries that mystery. The more time Lee Jong-su (and the audience because we never leave the protagonist’s point of view) spend with that guy, the more the tension is raised.
It is a film that not only lets you see, explore and wonder about the emotions and actions of the characters but it is also one, which in a more classical style asks the viewer to unravel a mystery. When the rug is pulled underneath our feet it is not done with an emphasis on the shock value. The audience doesn’t feel like they have witnessed a magic trick – they are constantly on board with the emotional roller coaster ride. Never does it feel like you are watching something manufactured or faked. For all of its realism, the film does go to inhumane and unnatural places but we never feel it – we completely buy every situation.
The Poetic Sunset Sequence
The best sequence of the film (that is arguable of course, since all of it is great) is set at sunset when the female character is dancing in front of the two boys. The camera follows her from the moment the dance starts and then at some point it just casually floats across the desolate landscape, featuring red clouds, mountain range and a simple farm fence. It is difficult to say how long that shot is – it could be two minutes or perhaps it could be five or maybe more. The important thing is that you get completely lost in the moment. In that scene, the male characters are passing around a joint but the scene becomes so overwhelming and entrancing that you might as well have joined in. The mixture of the cinematography, the girl’s fully devoted performance, the music and most importantly – the dramatic tension built between those characters at that moment feels out-worldly.
A Unique Cinematic Experience
It is possible that Burning won’t get nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. It has attracted some criticism because of its portrayal of the female character because of her perceived image as an attraction for the male gaze or whatever. Additionally, some of the cast have had problems with the current trends, circulating in Hollywood. So, it is a shame that the film won’t get the official praise it absolutely deserves. But the acting, the script and especially the emotional impact, which the director’s extraordinary work manages to evoke are truly impressive. It is unlike any American production that you will be able to see this year. The film displays the power of cinema that nowadays can only come from the foreign market, while also delivering in its more classic, mystery-focused elements. It is not right to say “see Burning”. Experience Burning if you get the chance. Who knows when another film like it will get made.
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