Burning is a new South Korean film directed by Chang-dong Lee. It made waves at its debut at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. The movie is about a part-time worker that wants to become a writer, a girl from his childhood, and a mysterious man with an unusual hobby as their lives become intertwined.
This film is almost impossible to describe, and that is a good thing. In fact, it is ridiculously difficult to write this review. This certainly isn’t for everyone — some may not be able to stick with the movie’s stately pace long enough to enjoy it. However, if you can stick with it, it is a brilliant piece of art cinema.
The first hour and a half of the film has very little plot. It is just a series of interactions that introduce you to the characters and thematic focus. The pacing is slow and unfriendly to those who are averse to dialogue-heavy movies, but it never felt boring. The dialogue is very dense, packed with metaphors and symbolism. It is important to pay close attention to these things, as they frequently came back in the second half of the film.
The last hour is absolutely insane. It ramps up the intensity in a single scene, switching from a talky drama to a mind-bending psychological thriller. There are so many callbacks to the dialogue in the first part of the movie that, looking back from the end, it is easy to see how intricately-crafted the narrative is.
The execution is wonderful too. The cinematography is amazing, with movements so smooth that they’re sometimes unnoticeable. Also great is the use of sound. There are multiple scenes in which the film drops into absolute silence, creating an unsettling atmosphere. The score also went a long way in building the atmosphere, too.
The performances are worthy of merit as well. Ah-In Yoo does a phenomenal job in his leading role. He really commands the screen, selling every bit of emotion to its maximum. Steven Yeun (whom most people will probably know from The Walking Dead) is also wonderful, delivering a charismatic yet mysterious performance with a great deal of nuance.
That being said, the film does seem to make one misstep. The subplot involving the protagonist’s parents feels somewhat underdeveloped. These scenes seem to serve only as a catalyst for the plot, not a means of building the story’s metaphors. They are still interesting, but don’t really add anything to the meaning.
Overall, Burning is a complex, rich film that will surely stick in your mind. It’s one that would benefit from multiple watches, as the level of detail means that picking up more details each time is a likelihood.
Burning is now in select theaters.