Director: Lee Chang-dong
Cast: Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, Jun Jong-seo
The nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film category of this year’s Academy Awards are all very strong contenders, from Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma to Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War. Despite making the short-list, and being the first Korean film to do so, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning couldn’t quite reach the finals. However, it says a lot that it even made the semis, an unsurprising achievement after its success at the Cannes Film Festival last year. At the very least it provides audiences with a good reason to part with their money in order to see this adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning. Although it’s been garnering much in the way of critical acclaim over the past year or so, how does Burning really fare from a regular audience perspective?
Jong-su (Yoo), a Creative Writing graduate and wannabe-fiction writer, returns to his family farm after his father runs into legal trouble and is on the edge of being sent to jail. One day, when he’s out making errands, Jong-su runs into Hae-mi (Jun), a girl who used to live near him when they were children but whom he doesn’t remember. Hae-mi asks Jong-su if he could feed her cat whilst she’s away on a short trip to Africa, a request to which Jong-su acquiesces. Upon her return, Hae-mi introduces Jong-su to her new friend whom she met in Kenya, Ben (Yeun). As the three spend time together, Jong-su begins to find out more about Ben and starts to grow wary of him, until one day Hae-mi stops contacting anyone and essentially goes missing. Having developed strong feelings for Hae-mi, Jong-su takes it upon himself to figure out what has happened to her.
Burning, as would be expected, has all the hallmarks of a Murakami story, with themes ranging from loneliness to surrealism as well as a mystery surrounding a disappearance. Director Lee takes on these characteristics of Murakami’s and layers in his own abstract visuals through gorgeous cinematography that makes the most of the Korean landscape and the way he directs his incredible actors. It all comes together to create an experience that is both smooth and thrilling – the story flows comfortably throughout, even when events begin to ramp up, and though the pace does not quicken it works in the film’s favour as it gives it a more natural feel. An element of naturalism may seem juxtaposed to a Murakami story, but its function is to make the aspects of human nature that we often feel become more apparent and relatable within the fictional story, such as the paranoia Jong-su begins to feel when Hae-mi disappears or the attraction and lust between the two characters. Overall it manages to set a realistic tone in what is really a surreal situation.
Although taken from a short story, the plot itself is given plenty of time (148 minutes) to build and become something that incorporates the short story’s main arcs and allows the story as a whole and its plot points to breathe. The length may cause one to shy away from the film, but do not let it put you off: Lee will constantly have you transfixed on the story and the way he weaves it through Jong-su’s perspective, something that may not have been quite as effective if it weren’t for Yoo Ah-in’s immersive performance. Stretching a minimal story into a feature-length film isn’t an easy task unless you know your material, and it’s clear that Lee knows his Murakami and has studied the story in-depth. He brings out every detail that will be of great import to the audience while not spelling everything out or patronising viewers. If there’s one drawback however, from an average audience perspective and without giving too much away, it’s that there’s no real closure to the story. There’s a climax of sorts, but a distinct lack of consequence. It’s actually a theme that’s in-keeping with the overall story (and general Murakami, really), for instance every time Jong-su has a sexual encounter either with Hae-mi or alone there’s no climax for him, or at least we as an audience do not witness a climax. As a result, the end of the film does leave the audience desiring more, but again it’s entirely likely that this is part of Lee’s intentions throughout, frustrating as it can be (and the connotations are never ending, it seems).
As mentioned, the film may not have the strength that it does were it not for the lead performances. Yoo’s portrayal of average-joe-farmer Jong-su is understated but powerful; he doesn’t necessarily say or reveal a whole lot, but through his minimal expressions and actions we come to understand a lot about who Jong-su is and how he feels about a lot of situations he finds himself in, mostly because we as an audience can relate to or at least understand his reactions. Although the films stands strong aside from performances, it’s Yoo who really holds the audience’s attention and imagination. Yeun provides a similar kind of performance as Ben: we know as soon as Ben appears that something is off about him, and in that sense we follow Yoo’s performance as through Jong-su he represents our own natural reactions to something that feels ‘off’; however without Yeun’s ability to present Ben as sly and arrogant with a sense of je ne sais quoi, we may not relate to Jong-su’s suspicions quite as readily. Ben is a long way off the character most people may know Yeun for: Glenn in The Walking Dead. It’s always refreshing to see a popular actor stretch his acting muscles in something different, and for Yeun it’s particularly good to see him in a film that hails from his native country and language. Adding to this is Jun’s performance as Hae-mi that rounds off the three leads, as she portrays an enigmatic yet fragile female that bounds into Jong-su’s life and who lives on the edge of the mystery that is Ben. Hae-mi as a character demands a lot of the actress portraying her, and it’s a challenge Jun has more than risen to. There is an argument that she is nothing more than a plot device between the two male characters, however it must be remembered that the film is entirely through Jong-su’s perspective, and if it weren’t for Hae-mi and her beguiling ways certain scenes would likely come crashing down and have no meaning, such as a couple of separate scenes in which she describes things she’s experienced on her trip to Africa. She brings more to the film than may be initially realised, but ultimately it’s Jong-su who presents her to us, and Jun’s performance allows her to be a more rounded person than may be understood at first.
It’s always good to see Korean films and filmmakers making their mark on the world stage, but even more so when they are entirely worthy of the accolades and recognition they receive. Lee’s film is another push of the boundaries that have plagued Korean cinema for decades, and Burning is a fantastic adaptation of a story by one of the world’s most revered and difficult to interpret writers. Lee Chang-dong and his cast and crew’s work has very much paid off. It makes it all the more wonderful to see that it was second only to Deadpool 2 on its opening day in South Korea, proving that more and more minds are opening up to more artistic cinema. Whether it be Lee or another of Korea’s great and forward-thinking filmmakers, it’s only a matter of time before a Korean-made film not only makes it onto the final lists for awards but eventually wins them too.