Though it didn’t go on to the 91st Academy Awards, director Lee Chang-dong’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning still had a good year with 30 wins and 104 nominations from various global festivals and events. The opening sequence of Burning alone is enough for the audience to recognize that there’s something different about the film, something which draws them in without their being able to explain why. Even when Lee juxtaposes seemingly innocuous character-focused moments against nature’s beauty, he manages to permeate each frame with a lingering sense of tension, imbuing Burning with omnipresent dread. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the narrative developed by Lee and co-writer Oh Jungmi leaves enough ambiguity for the audience to create their own explanation for what unfolds. By removing the concrete and focusing on the inherent potential of the displayed moment, the whole of Burning transforms from a quiet character-driven piece into a philosophical maelstrom.
Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo of The Throne) lives a quiet life in Seoul, taking on part-time work making deliveries just to make a living, doing whatever he can to keep from going home to his father in Paju. While making a delivery, he is stopped by a woman running a raffle. She slips him a number and sends him on his way. Only upon learning that he has a winning ticket does he approach her, discovering she’s a former neighbor from his childhood, Shin Hae-mi (newcomer Jong-seo Jun). After spending some time catching up, she asks him to cat-sit while she travels to Africa. Enchanted with her, he agrees, making the long trek to her home even after he’s forced to move back to Paju. Jong-su’s excited for her return and all the wondrous possibilities that await, until he meets Hae-mi’s travel companion Ben (Steven Yeun of Sorry to Bother You). Where Jong-su is self-conscious, introverted, and poor, Ben is confident, out-going, and mysteriously rich. Though the three end up spending more and more time with each other, there’s something about Ben Jong-su doesn’t trust and his concern grows upon learning of Ben’s strange hobby, heightening when Hae-mi goes missing.
So how does a 20-page short story turn into a 148-minute film?
Lee invokes the use of a subgenre known as “slow cinema.” It’s a minimalist technique which focuses on long takes, possesses little dialogue, and is often observational in its execution. This fits Burning perfectly. As executed by Lee, Burning is as much an enigmatic thriller as it is an examination of nature. This creates what the character Ben would call a “simultaneous experience” wherein the audience monitors the characters as Jong-su sees them while also examining the juxtaposed connection of the characters with nature. Considering the exacting nature of everything Lee puts on screen, it can’t be a mere coincidence that, even with no chronological markers to confirm, the story appears to begin in the spring and ends in winter, presenting a direct connection between Jong-su’s cryptic journey and nature’s own connection to the themes of birth-renewal-death via the relentless forwarding of time. The simultaneous experience empowers Burning to communicate on numerous levels, even when nothing is being said.
This is perfectly exemplified in the opening sequences as the camera focuses on the back of a white van, smoking rippling past from an unseen smoker on the side, the sun’s light making the scene clear and vibrant. When the person does move, they go quickly to the back, grab an ostensibly random package, and carry it down a busy street – making sure to keep their back to the camera. This is our introduction to Jong-su: a faceless man on a beautiful day, smoke fleeing from the embers of fire. Later, during an amorous exchange between Jong-su and Hae-mi, Jong-su finds himself helplessly starring at a rapidly disappearing spot of sun in Hae-mi’s closet, the spot itself a reflection as the sun shines against Seoul Tower. These moments seek to convey the dark beauty of time and man’s inability to forestall its inevitable expiration. Even later, as Jong-su, Hae-mi, and Ben finish an evening of food and intimate conversation, the three watch as the sun sets and, as if consumed by some pull, Hae-mi begins to dance, writhing and shaking, appearing to try to make herself one with the setting sun. As her dance comes to a close, the camera slowly pans across the burning sky toward the darker, colder portions the sun’s light no longer touches. This is the last sequence in which all three characters appear together, making Hae-mi’s dance perhaps intended as an offering to the sun, begging it to stay aloft just a while longer. These are merely three instances in a film inundated with other such moments whose dual purpose illustrates humanity’s untenable connection to nature and the existential dread said connection creates. Nothing particularly extraordinary happens, yet the audience cannot look away.
Even with thoughtful the direction and gorgeous cinematography, Burning requires the human element for the meditation aspects to spark within the audience. U.S. audiences are already familiar with Yuen’s work on The Walking Dead and Okja, and the various vocal work with The Legend of Korra and Voltron, but Burning offers a chance to do something very different. Where he typically portrays white hat characters, Ben is exceptionally grey. He’s so obtuse that the audience, like Jong-su, never gets a full bead on what Ben wants or desires. We can only guess, making Yeun’s characterization incredibly difficult. At once, Yeun must make Ben charming and thoughtful, while also mysterious and cold. Ben is “the other” to Jong-su, yet familiar to American audiences, instantly suggesting a cognitive dissonance the audience must hurdle as Jong-su tries to parse out the truth. Conversely, Yoo is more recognized internationally, so his job is similarly difficult as he must make Jong-su a sympathetic hero. This becomes tricky as the more the audience gets to know Jong-su, the less likable he is. For example, despite proclaiming himself a writer, he hasn’t written a word because he doesn’t know what story he wants to tell. Without question, this is the key element of the character, an internal conflict of knowing your purpose yet unable to do anything with it. Yoo beautifully conveys, with purposeful physical delivery, Jong-su’s growing frustrations and constant feeling of inadequacy, especially in the presence of Ben. The lynch pin pulling these two men together is Hae-mi, whose portrayal by Jun is incredible for a first-time performer. She’s absolutely fearless, clearly in the moment of every scene, many of which require her to convince the audience of her desirability as each man sees her. Though it’s not exactly a characterization worthy of feminism, her role does more than just create competition for both men, it plays with the notions of what the audience thinks she wants. In a film overloaded with secrecy, her performance is but another layer to be turned over and examined.
Considering the critical reception of Burning, it’s a touch shocking that the special features are so ordinary. There’re the usual teaser trailer, full trailer, and previews which accompany most home releases. In an effort to provide some context to the characters, “About the Characters” shows moments from the film mixed with behind the scenes footage and interviews with the principle cast. Clocking in under 3-minutes, “About the Characters” offers scant insights into the making of the film or the process of bringing the characters to life, but it is interesting for fans who want a little more understanding of Burning. Keep in mind “little” is the operative word.
To be clear, don’t confuse “slow cinema” for a sensationless experience. Burning isn’t meant to be a fast-paced, action-packed thrill ride. Rather, it’s designed and executed by Lee Chang-dong with a single-mindedness of capturing moments so that the audience fills them up with their own sense of meaning. In fact, the whole of the film can be explained in its opening moments. The simple act of beginning the film without showing us Jong-su’s face begins filling the audience with unease, penetrating the skin as the pressure of discomfort builds. Then, as the story plays out, the unease drills down into something that makes your skin crawl and keeps drilling until the end. Though there’s an argument that the ending doesn’t ever relieve the undulating strain the whole of the film induces, as the snows of winter fall upon the ground, the cycle reaching its natural end before rebirth, one can’t help but wonder if Lee Chang-dong is suggesting that the pressure within the audience, that constant existential dread, is never truly meant to dissipate, merely to be quelled until it rises again.
Now available on digital.
Available on Blu-ray Combo Pack and DVD March 5th, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.