Genre: Drama, Mystery | Country: South Korea | 2018 | 148 min
Directed by Lee Chang-dong
Starring: Yoo Ah-In, Steven Yeun, Jeon Jong-seo
During the Film Festival Cologne 2018, the South-Korean film was showcased. It had its Premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in the official competition.
Burning has also been selected as South Korea’s contender in the foreign-language category of the Oscars.
Director Lee Chang-dong is known for Poetry and Secret Sunshine and has the particularity of being a novelist as well.
In the following short review, I’ll talk about his last mystery-thriller-drama.
First things first. Burning is an adaptation of a short story by author Haruki Murakami, Barn Burning. It was published for the first time in 1992 in The New Yorker.
Lee Chang-dong managed somehow to make a film out of it, that is no shorter than 2 hours and 28 minutes.
The story revolves around Jongsu (Ah-In Yoo), a deliveryman aspiring to become a writer. One day, as he’s out on a job, he runs into Haemi (Jong-seo Jeon), a girl he knows from his childhood. Jongsu gets quickly found of her and as she plans a trip to Africa, she asks him to look after her cat. To Jongsu’s disappointment, Haemi returns accompanied by a young man named Ben (Steven Yeun). He’s handsome, rich and cultivated. And he has a curious hobby that gives Jongsu no peace.
Burning excels by its slowness and its intense use of color palette.
The film shows slow shots and long scenes, yet without ever releasing the tension. Lee Chang-dong took his time on every shot, and yet, there isn’t one single moment, that is boring in Burning.
In accomplishing his work, Lee Chang-dong was supported by Kyung-pyo Hong’s cinematographical skills. The latter is known for Showpiercer, Brotherhood, and The Wailing.
One further aspect that highlights the style of Burning, is the variation between the color palettes. Not only the different hours of the day are contrasting but also the different contexts. Jongsu jogging alone in the early morning diverges highly from scenes where he’s in the presence of Ben. Those scenes tend to be in the yellow range, as an omen.
Ah-In Yoo has an impressive career behind him, not only as an actor but also as a creative director. He’s known for Yungnyong-i Nareusya (a series), Sado and Veteran – Above The Law. Ah-In Yoo never let his character Jongsu show openly his shyness and fear of failure. Although it’s palpable for the other protagonists – especially by Ben, played astonishingly by Steven Yeun – it never bursts out in a dramatical way. That’s what makes Jongsu so unpredictable and more and more surprising toward the end of the film.
Jong-seo Jeon (recent in the business) incarnates charismatically the mysterious and volatile Haemi. She’s not straightforward, which seems to strengthen Jongsu’s feeling for her, and on the contrary, leave Ben unmoved.
Steven Yeon, known for Okja, I Origins, and The Walking Dead, grasps perfectly his performance as a creepy Korean Gatsby (another literary reference that shows the background of the director). No one knows how Ben is making money and what his motives are, and that’s discernible on Yeon’s face right by his first appearance on screen.
Those who could be nervous about the considerable length of the film will be surprised about how time will fly.
The beautiful cinematography, the tension that increases with each scene and the brilliance of the performances will bewitch you until the very last moment.
Burning is a treasure and a must watch.
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