The BFI London Film Festival last week drew to a close, showcasing films from newbie filmmakers and seasoned veterans from around the globe. I was lucky enough to catch Burning, a South Korean noir directed by Lee Chang-dong. Lee offers a three-handed hypnotic and tense drama with impressive performances from the central three characters.
Burning is about an aspiring young writer, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) struggling with various jobs trying to write his first novel. By chance, he meets an unrecognisable Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), a supposed childhood friend. Jong-su is entranced by Haemi’s flirtatiousness and she seduces him back to her flat. Haemi asks Jong-su a favour – to feed her shy cat while she is travelling in Africa; he obliges but never manages to catch a glimpse of the cat itself. On her return from Africa, Jong-su finds Haemi with a mysterious man, Ben (Steven Yeun). Ben claims to have never shed a tear, and hardly feels sadness; he drives a fancy sportscar and lives in a luxurious apartment, yet doesn’t seem to work; he smokes weed and burns greenhouses for fun – one every 2 months is his optimum ‘pace’. When Haemi suddenly vanishes without trace, Jong-su wonders if Ben has anything to do with her disappearance.
Burning is a reimagining of the Haruki Murakami short story, Barn Burning – the film takes liberties with the original plot, but Murakami’s sombre and melancholic tone survives in the already bittersweet tale. This adaptation is realised with modern noir-thriller elements; traces of psychopathy, distrust, the unreliable narrator play a big part in this film. Moments of tension are done effectively – characters merely talking to each other become an increasingly uncomfortable watch. We expect something to snap and the gears to grind into place but it never happens in the way we expect. The film is like a pot full to the brim of water, slowly coming to the boil from a low heat – before someone comes and turns it off to stop it overflowing. It liberally takes its time to breathe and ponder, and keeps its cards close to its chest throughout; when the moment did come, Burning finally revealed what kind of a film it really is. It subverted my expectations, but not in a wholly satisfying manner.
In some respects, you could read the film as a straightforward psychological thriller, but it clearly sets its target higher than that. The cinematography for a start, is unusual for a noir: its muted pastel tones and natural lighting supports its realism, as well as employing a hypnotic gaze, especially when the frame dances around the cursed freedom that Haemi embodies. Focus is tight and intimate on the characters, rarely on their surroundings, and so succeeds in making the modern Korean landscape as big but isolating as possible with the limited cast. A short motif score of a deep bass and hand drums weaves back and forth into the story, but where it is most effective is the silence it lets occupy in the scene – it’s sound design done with confidence. Burning takes a naturalistic approach in its production, in line with its central debate of what’s real and not.
Many Korean films, are rooted in politics and Burning is no exception. Trump is on the news channel while the protagonist urinates; it’s set in Paju, near the DMZ, where North Korean propaganda broadcasts chirp in the background of the sleepy countryside; it talks of the rising levels of youth unemployment, while highlighting misogyny and mistreatment of women, classism, and hereditary personality traits. While it never succeeds to fully integrate coherent points on these issues into the main body of the film, you can easily interpret the finale as something other than literal.
I enjoyed Burning thoroughly; it was never boring or dull, keeping me on my toes until it revealed itself, albeit with a whimper. Steven Yeun gives an impressively measured performance, Jeon Jong-seo confidently expresses the melancholia of her character, and while Yoo Ah-in plays to our sympathies, his character is mostly unlikeable. It’s easy to lose yourself in the frame and let the entrancing current take you on this trip of reflection.