Directed by Lee Chang-dong, Burning follows the story of Jong-soo reuniting with his childhood friend Hae-mi before she goes exploring another country. On her way back home, she starts dating Ben, a rich high-class individual. Soon, Jong-so finds himself fascinated by Ben’s life while also struggling to understand his feelings for Hae-mi.
Although based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, Burning is very much a story of its own. An expected but nuanced touch of the Korean socio-economic class divide breathes a new life to an already immersive narrative. The film elevates it by giving these characters a real sense of purpose and place in their world. Nothing against Murakami’s short, but a film has many luxuries to achieve this and it’s something I went in expecting. Also, it goes beyond the ending of the short story that almost makes it a thriller rather than just a metaphorical drama.
Among many great aspects, the most memorable remains the film’s production design. Nearly every set feels lived in (which it probably was) and has an authenticity to it that is crucial for its atmosphere. Be it Hae-mi’s small messy apartment that barely receives any sunlight or Jong-soo’s dirty farm that is remote enough to hear North Korean Propaganda in the open.
The detailed character work by Lee Chang-dong and Oh Jung-mi is exceptional in its Korean context. All three characters are emotionally broken in their own ways and have their privilege or the lack of it to blame for. Just through its excellent characters, the film talks about losing purpose regardless of which side of wealth they belong to. The performances do justice to these characters being subtle yet compelling. Probably the biggest surprise is Ben, who despite being an enigma, manages to feel disturbingly real.
The film is shot impeccably with incredible lighting, both bright and low. Hong Kyung-Pyo’s cinematography is a visual delight, be it indoors in Ben’s apartment or in Jong-soo’s farm overlooking a sunset. This is a thoroughly very well-made film. A film that can immerse you immediately just with its technical prowess, despite not initially having a very exciting plot.
What doesn’t work
Unfortunately, there’s some major criticism. The film goes beyond the short story where most of my reservations lie. Burning, unfortunately, gives out a few too many clues for a story that’s intentionally metaphorical and vague. The short story leaves a lot unsaid, even though it has one interpretation believed true by most.
In its last 30 minutes, Burning gives heavy evidence for that interpretation, leaving little room for anything else. This, unfortunately, makes for a few silly character decisions and leaves some established character work feeling diminished. One could still argue for a different interpretation but the evidence for that just isn’t nearly as convincing. But all of this can still be regarded as filler to a story that does justice to the short. In my head, the film probably ended without the additional 30 minutes.
Burning (2018) breathes a new life to Haruki Murakami’s short story with its Korean setting and a narrative beyond the original ending. The additional plot arguably hinders its metaphorical premise, but the rest remains strong owing to some exceptional character work, incredible filmmaking, and compelling performances.