- Review by Hiram Harrington
To call Burning a film that does what it says on the tin would be to ignore the depths to which that ache reaches. Based on the short story Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami, Lee Chang-Dong’s sixth feature film bathes itself in apt slow-burning thrills and offers the audience a masterclass in restraint. Already the South Korean picture has been selected for contention for the 2018 Palme D’Or at Cannes and been shortlisted for the upcoming Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, becoming the first Korean film to do so.
Burning follows Lee Jung-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young factory worker who rekindles a childhood relationship after a chance meeting. Gone is the girl he once bullied, and present is the happy-go-lucky Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). Jung-su is infatuated with her from the first encounter, and only becomes more intrigued by her as he looks after her shy cat when she’s on vacation. Coming back in the company of Steven Yeun’s Ben is when things take a turn. Hae-mi and Jung-su’s relationship begins to spiral, as a strange mystery unravels all centring around the distant and strange Ben.
Steven Yeun shines as the mysterious Ben, a wealthy Korean businessman with a deeply disturbing proclivity. Known primarily to Western audiences for his role as Glen on AMC’s The Walking Dead, Yeun has developed exceptionally beyond the zombie melodrama. His calm demeanour throughout his interactions with Jung-su is truly unsettling to witness, and proves to be the most electric element of this reserved film.
Jeon Jong-seo is a scene-stealer in the most gentle way possible. Hae-mi’s genuine innocence comes to life with each interaction she has with her male counterparts. Burning truly sparks excellence with Hae-mi in moments where other directors would struggle to present the subject matter; scenes of masturbation and sexual encounters are framed with delicacy, offering the audience a softness rarely shown with such intimacy. Reservation is the key word when describing Burning. Each edit, development, line of dialogue is painstakingly chaste, leaving the viewer always wanting.
At nearly two and a half hours, Burning is an exercise in patience as well as passion. The lengthy runtime coupled with a lack of action is what will put many casual cinemagoers off seeing it, but I cannot stress how much it is worth the experience. Lee Chang-Dong has crafted a chilling, yet utterly rapturous tale. Every thread introduced results in the most artfully woven film this reviewer has seen in a long time.
Burning is an unmissable international addition to this coming awards season, and will be one worth remembering for years to come. Experience it on the big screen from February 1st, when it opens to a limited release across Ireland.