Film London Film Festival Marie O'Sullivan's Film Reviews

Burning: London Film Festival 2018 Review


A not-quite-what-it-seems story from Lee Chang-dong has the audience wondering what is true in the Korean director’s latest offering.


Lee Chang-dong’s film Burning starts out as one thing and ends up something very different indeed. There’s little reason at the start to question whether it is what it presents itself as, and the same goes for its three main protagonists. Even by the end, it’s not entirely clear how much of their stories is a fabrication, or perhaps even a delusion.

Ah-in Yoo plays Jong-su, a quiet young man from the countryside with dreams of becoming a writer. While working as a delivery man, he bumps into former classmate Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) one day and they strike up a relationship. Before long she has persuaded him to feed her cat while she is away on a dream trip to Africa which he dutifully does, even though the cat is never anywhere to be seen. On her return, she introduces him to Ben (Steven Yuen), an affluent (read: smug and pompous) young man whom she met on her travels. The two men couldn’t be more different from each other, and Hae-mi is the link between them. After an evening of wine and spliffs, Ben decides it’s time to share his occasional hobby with Jong-su.

Then one-day Hae-mi stops returning his calls and Jong-su becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her. There are clues along the way, of course, although at the time they are seen, it’s still not obvious that we may be watching something more mysterious.

Woven throughout is a subtle commentary on the attitudes of young South Koreans today – consumed with looking good and having the right clothes, to the point of running up huge credit card bills. How to exist and find their place in society appears to be a challenge. Somewhere in the distance, the North Korea propaganda announcements can be heard blowing across the border to properties that are situated close by.

Lee Chang-dong has taken a short story by Haruki Murakami and created a more elaborate plot from it. I think it could have done with having a slightly shorter run-time, but at least that gave me the chance to appreciate the strong cinematography; strong in both urban and rural settings, often using just natural light. A pivotal extended scene outside Jong-su’s house in the countryside is stunningly shot, and you can almost feel some of the damp, foggy mornings in your bones.

I *think* I liked this quite a lot despite the length. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, and a re-watch might help to sort that out. It may play differently knowing how it all turns out, but that’s half the fun, isn’t it?

Burning is in theaters in the US October 26th and in the UK February 1st 2018

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