Burning (2018) Poster

(2018)

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8/10
A slow-burning mystery about economics, class, and sexual jealousy. And cats.
Bertaut16 February 2019
A thriller about a missing person. An allegory of class division. A study of generational alienation. A fable about modern consumerism. A dramatisation of psychological breakdown and genetically inherited rage. An analysis of socio-economic disenfranchisement. A critique of toxic masculinity and its concomitant misogyny. A condemnation of middle-class gentrification. A threnody for a traditional Korea that's slowly being replaced by faceless cosmopolitanism. An extended rib on Schrödinger's cat. Beoning is all of these. And none of them. This is a narrative fundamentally built on questions, very few of which are answered definitively.

In his first film in eight years, writer/director Lee Chang-dong begins this protean narrative as an almost high school-esque teen romance, before shifting gears into a story of sexual and economic jealousy, then morphing into the tale of a pseudo-film noir amateur sleuth, before finally allowing itself to visit the thriller territory that has lurked just outside the frame since the opening few scenes. Essentially a psychological drama about three people, although it's possible that only one of those people is real. There are also two cats. Or maybe only one cat. It's a long journey (148 minutes), and, for some, the payoff won't be worth the length of time taken to get there. Others, more used to concrete black-and-white yes-and-no narratives, will be unimpressed with how steadfastly the film refuses to yield its secrets. However, it has an undeniable ability to burrow under your skin, with Lee bestowing portentous significance upon the most inanimate of objects, only to later reveal that whilst we were trying to figure out the importance of item a, we missed the significance of item b.

Adapted by Lee and Jungmi Oh from Haruki Murakami's 1983 short story "Barn Burning", which is itself loosely inspired by William Faulkner's 1939 short story of the same name, Beoning is set in contemporary South Korea, and tells the story of aspiring novelist Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in). Working as a part-time delivery man in Seoul, he encounters Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who claims they went to school together, although he doesn't remember her. Telling him she will shortly be travelling to Africa, she asks him to feed her cat, Boil. He agrees, and the two have sex. Jong-su happily feeds Boil, and even though every time he comes to the apartment, the cat is nowhere to be seen, the food and water are disappearing. A few weeks later, she returns with Ben (Steven Yeun), a confidant, irritatingly polite, and extremely wealthy young man. The trio develop an odd relationship, and one evening, Jong-su admits to Ben that he loves Hae-mi, and Ben tells him about his strange hobby of burning greenhouses. A few days later, Hae-mi disappears, and Jong-su, suspecting Ben, sets out to find her.

Beoning is masterfully constructed upon a foundation of questions, only a very few of which are answered. Some of the bigger questions include, why does Jong-su not remember Hae-mi from school; what happened to Hae-mi; what does Ben do for a living; is his admission that he has never cried evidence of sociopathy; does he really burn down greenhouses? There are also a whole host of smaller mysteries running alongside - why does Hae-mi seem to rig a raffle so that Jong-su wins; what exactly did Jong-su's father do (when the film begins, he is standing trial on a vague assault charge); who is calling Jong-su's home in the middle of the night and hanging up; why does he stare at his father's knives the way he does; where is his sister; does Boil exist; is Ben's rescue cat the same cat as the never-seen Boil; did Hae-mi really fall down a well as a child? Some (or more) of these questions remain unanswered, although there are certainly clues scattered throughout.

Thematically, the film covers a plethora of issues; toxic masculinity, alpha and beta males, economics and consumerism, class, the place of women in Korean society, sexual jealousy, the death of a bucolical way of life, working-class privations, faceless capitalism, the price of success, hope, writer's block. Of course, some are more foregrounded than others, with economics in particular emphasised. For example, the film cuts from a scene of the trio at a swanky nightclub (into which Ben has ensured they could go) to a scene of Jong-su alone, mucking out the cow stable. The contrast between the lifestyles of the two men couldn't be clearer. Jong-su belongs to a generation of working-class people who will be economically worse off than their parents were at the same age, whilst the gap between the middle-class and the working class has grown wider than ever. The Korea of the film is very much a place of castes, hierarchies of privilege and social standing, with Jong-su and Ben on the opposite end of every spectrum.

The film also engages significantly with gender politics. One of the things that so captivates Jong-su about Hae-mi is her provocative behaviour. Yet later, when she dances topless outside his house, he is disgusted, telling Ben, "only a wh-re acts like that." It's a succinct summary of a societal double-standard; men can behave how they wish, but women must conform to arbitrary expectations. It could be argued that Hae-mi functions primarily to further Jong-su and Ben's arcs, and is devoid of any real agency herself. An alternative reading, however, is that she is poorly sketched as a character so as to represent a patriarchal society in which women are seen as less complex than men. For the most part, Beoning avoids didacticism on this issue, but to suggest that Hae-mi is simply a badly written character seems to me to be a very superficial interpretation of a film with great depth.

However, there is also the possibility that Hae-mi doesn't actually exist, and in this sense, the fact that she is presented in such sexualised terms is because she is literally a male's fantasy, a sexual obsession born in the disturbed mind of an unreliable narrator. The film is told exclusively from Jong-su's perspective, he is in every scene, and the narrative never shifts to another focal character or to an omniscient viewpoint. With this in mind, everything we see is filtered through his ideological outlook; if he attaches significance to an object, the audience is invited to do likewise. Lee masterfully handles this tricky structural device, placing the audience directly into the same (possibly paranoid) headspace as the character. So, for example, when Jong-su sees Ben yawning as Hae-mi is recreating a dance she learned in Kenya, the yawn becomes immensely sinister, because that's how Jong-su interprets it. In this sense, if one theorises that Hae-mi is, in fact, a figment of Jong-su's imagination - an idealisation of a beautiful woman who wants him - then Ben must also originate in Jong-su's mind, functioning as the inverse to Hae-mi; a personification of everything to which Jong-su aspires, but is unable to attain. The fact that Lee leaves this tantalising possibility on the table whilst still managing to analyse social-realist topics such as economics and class, is a testament to his extraordinary control over the material.

One of the most salient motifs, if not necessarily a theme unto itself, is that of disappearance, with references scattered throughout the film - Hae-mi notes that her childhood home is gone, as is the well she fell into; Jong-su recollects how after his mother abandoned the family, his father burnt her clothes; when Ben tells Jong-su about his greenhouse hobby, he states, "you can make it disappear as if it never even existed"; Hae-mi literally says she wants to disappear; when Jong-su asks Ben if it's possible Hae-mi has gone on another trip, Ben says, "maybe she disappeared like a puff of smoke". The most important scene in this sense is an early one. Explaining that she's learning pantomime, Hae-mi proceeds to mime peeling and eating a tangerine, telling Jong-su the trick isn't to pretend the tangerine is really there, but to "forget it doesn't exist". This challenge to perception is crucial not just in how Jong-su becomes convinced Hae-mi has met foul play despite the lack of evidence, it also provides a clue for the audience as to how best to parse the film itself.

Of course, for all that, there are a few problems. For one, it's a little too long, and there are occasions when the narrative seems somewhat desultory. I would imagine that a lot of people will also dislike the ambiguity. Personally, I loved this aspect and thought Lee handled it magnificently, but it certainly isn't for everyone. A minor issue is that as protagonists go, Jong-su is extremely passive, a character to whom things happen rather than the narrative's driving force. Again, some people will dislike this aspect, but I think it's important that Jong-su is depicted this way, especially in relation to the final scene. Of that scene, it could be seen as disappointingly familiar, something seen in any number of standard genre pieces. I disagree with that, but I can see where the criticism is coming from, as it does conform neatly to the rubric of a quotidian thriller.

All in all, I found Beoning to be a haunting film, one which I couldn't get out of head for days, and I'm keen to see it again. Lee's masterful control of tone is extraordinary, balancing a plethora of themes within a half-social-realist/half-magic-realist milieu. As good an exercise in cinematic suggestiveness as you're likely to see, Lee subtly alters mood so as to manipulate, push, prod, guide, and fool the audience. The film is such that everything on screen, every word spoken, every background detail could be important. Or not. Fiercely intelligent, deeply nuanced, complexly layered, it's a film that rewards concentration. It is, simply put, the finely crafted work of a distinct and relevant auteur.
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9/10
Burning questions
gizmomogwai4 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Burning, the 2018 FIPRESCI Prize-winning film from South Korea, has a mysterious quality to it, and not just because this romantic drama-thriller also belongs (perhaps most of all) to the mystery genre. Slow paced, understated, it's the kind of film that can create tension in simple moments like silence, watching, following. It appears there could be a simple, straightforward solution: Ben is a serial killer who has murdered Hae-mi, and Jong-su is putting the pieces together. But is it that simple?

1. What was the significance of Jong-su being a writer? Jong-su is trying to craft a novel; perhaps he's finding his subject as he goes. An elderly man (a career counselor?) remarks to Jong-su that protagonists are always "crazy". This may be telling the audience to ask questions about Jong-su himself. Ben also tells Hae-mi to ask Jong-su what a metaphor is. Why is that exchange in the film, and why are we being told to look for it?

2. What is the significance of Hae-mi's well story? It sows doubt in Jong-su's mind about Hae-mi's honesty. He goes back and forth trying to find out if the story is true. Is it a literal truth or does it refer to a spiritual state?

3. What is the significance of the "Great Hunger" theme? When Hae-mi describes an African sunset and her desire to disappear in it, the line is presumed to be innocent and is forgettable on first viewing. Does it provide any answers as to Hae-mi's disappearance?

4. Why does Jong-su set fire to part of a greenhouse? He's frightened of what Ben can do, but comes close to doing it himself. Is Jong-su what he is afraid of?

5. Why William Faulkner? Ask a literary expert, I don't know.

6. Why the subplot of Jong-su's father being charged with assault? This doesn't fit in anywhere into the Ben-Hae-mi plot. A red herring? A useful explanation as to Jong-su's psychology?

7. Why does Jong-su question whether Boil the cat lives only in Hae-mi's mind? He never sees Boil until at Ben's home. Is Boil a smoking gun or is he an illusion?

8. What's the significance of North Korea being within sight of the main setting and their propaganda being in earshot? A sense of place, or perhaps a sign we should look at divisions in Korean society, a Korea with both struggling youth and Great Gatsbys.

9. Why is Jong-su's military service mentioned so briefly? One wonders what we can learn from where he went, what he saw and what happened to him.

10. Why the conversation on how the Chinese are like the Americans? We're directed to think about people who put them in the centre of everything and people considerate of others. Ben is the type who puts himself in the centre; is Jong-su too?

With so many mysteries, Burning is the kind of film that demands repeated viewings and thought, a psychological mystery waiting to be decoded.
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7/10
Fascinating but maybe over-rated
proud_luddite9 December 2018
Based on the short story "Barn Burning" by Haruki Murakami: in Paju, South Korea, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a young aspiring writer from a dysfunctional family doing odd jobs while also looking after the family farm nearby. He reconnects with a former classmate Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) whose affections later turn to the very rich Ben (Steven Yuen). Ben's unusual character take everyone down a mysterious path.

At two and a half hours, the film is perhaps too long especially as the first half begins to get dull at a certain point. This thankfully changes when the story and its energy get very mysterious. Here is where the film earns many points for its uniqueness and its subtle ways to lure the viewer into its web. In a good way, this segment is rarely frightening but always intriguing. Also, class difference plays a major role but without being obviously so.

The audience is teased overall with only a minimal amount of information - just enough to understand while still yearning for more by the end. While a bit more information might have raised the film overall, it's still fair to say that the tease pays off for the most part. - dbamateurcritic
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8/10
The rare film that gets its value upon reflection.
domtaylor7 February 2019
It's the rare film that gets its value upon reflection rather than during watching. It's not boring as such, but with its extremely long runtime it does generally feel slow paced and often runs the risk of being quite dull. Luckily though, the pure sense of mystery that surrounds the three core players (our protagonist included) and the film's world as a whole keeps things intriguing throughout. As the narrative progresses, however, and the core mystery of the piece arrives, things get a lot more intriguing and this intrigue lasts long after the haunting finale. That's where the film really gets its merit. None of the enigmas are definitively answered, and this leads to an extremely subtle - yet wholly rewarding - experience that allows you to draw your own conclusions of what it was actually about. The picture could be about several different things, and it all depends on the individual spectator response. This, as well as the complete lack of on-the-nose exposition, is very refreshing in today's age of cinema where nothing is left to the imagination anymore. We are not told, or even explicitly shown, anything integral to answer the core mystery and this allows you to reflect on all of the intricacies of several different scenes in order to draw your own conclusions. It really is a one of a kind experience that will leave you scrutinising for days, discovering a new narrative possibility upon every thought. Its slow pace and the sense that it's not really going anywhere might make it seem hard to get through initially, but once it's over it becomes a rich, rewarding experience. 8/10
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A little disappointing
breadandhammers7 September 2020
Wow. Didn't do it for me. Characters were bland. Story was bland. Pacing was plodding and slow. I know I'm going against the grain here, but something definitely went over my head.
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10/10
(Slow) Burning
kosmasp17 May 2019
Korean cinema produces highlights that quite a lot of people are not aware of. Landing Steven Yeun (who's internationally known) in one of the lead roles might help change that. But just because there is "Hollywood" star in this, does not make this a Hollywood movie or a movie that is easy to digest. And I'm not trying to make a judgement here.

If you want to, you can call it a "warning". A warning because the pacing here is quite slow. And it is rather character driven with a difficult to define goal or theme. The latter is only really true in the beginning and of course the director has a clear idea of where he wants to go or where the characters have to be. Very low key, but still high on drama and mystery. The movie dares you to make your own conclusions but also gives you hints, not facts. And we are left wondering a couple of things. Very weird indeed, but also very good
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6/10
Bluffing
EdgarST6 April 2020
Thanks to the quarantine, I finally saw "Burning". What a long and overrated movie! Based on a Japanese short story, it is not a bad film, it has inspired directorial moments, and a very good performance by the charmingly sinister Steven Yeun, but it's one of those movies that critics, the film "intelligentsia" and filmmakers, all addicted to Netflix (where they know what makes their subscribers tick), adore and excessively praise, because the ambiguous plots, mysteries, alleged murderers, psychological mazes and other clichés, all lead them to delirium... like Jong-su, the protagonist.

Jong-su (Yoo) is a poor, reserved and humble boy, a product of a very dysfunctional family, with literary pretensions, and who is torn between beginning to write the novel that will accredit him as a writer, and his obsession with Hae-mi ( un), his ex-classmate, who is also poor, has mystical aspirations that she confuses with her primary eroticism, and who leads Jong-su to meet Ben (Yeun), a well-off man, of uncertain profession and with small tastes and secrets like anybody else. Meanwhile, boy and girl have to solve family matters and pay debts, and when she disappears, the film becomes a little livelier than the 90 previous minutes, following the stereotypical steps of the "thriller" that you have seen hundreds of times and... degenerating? into a kind of «Psycho»... a little more explicit. Check it out... but don't believe the story of the 150 nominations and awards. There are better films that never won a banana, in which you can better waste your time.
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4/10
Too long for its own good
Leofwine_draca11 January 2020
Warning: Spoilers
BURNING is another Korean thriller with arthouse sensibilities that falls down due to the basic premise. What we have here is a mystery focused around the psychology of the main characters but with only 5 or 6 main plot points. The yes is all about mood-building with lots of landscape shots and slow, drawn-out dialogue scenes. After the first hour I was getting restless, and by the end I realised how tedious I was finding all this. For those about to suggest I have a short attention span, I'm a fan of arthouse cinema made by auteurs injecting meaning into their work; Herzog and Ki-duk in particular. This just feels like padding and is twice the length it needs to be. It looks wonderful and the performances are excellent, but in the end it really doesn't have much to say.
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9/10
Brilliant, but be patient with it
gbill-7487714 March 2020
Jeon Jong-seo (who plays Hae-Mi) has some really beautiful moments in this film, including her pantomime routine, her mimicking the "great hunger" dance from the bushmen of the Kalahari, and the way she uses her hands to mimic a bird in flight at dusk, backlit by sunset. The "great hunger," this hunger to understand the meaning of life, is such a poetic concept, and I just loved it. It fits in so well with these two disaffected young people, who both have such difficult relationships with their parents and face a harsh world.

She tearfully says that a sunset in Africa made her want to disappear like the sunset, and her mother has disowned her until she pays off her credit card debt. Her friend Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) has an angry father who is on his way to jail, and a mother who abandoned him long ago. When she sees her son again out of her own need, she can't stop herself from looking at her phone, which is a heartbreaking moment. He's an aspiring author who likes Faulkner, but is not sure what to write about. Is there any wonder he's so isolated and quiet? "To me, the world is an enigma," he says.

I absolutely love that little moment in her apartment, when we see an ephemeral reflection of light off the nearby tower glint and then fade, with is such a beautiful analogy to the beautiful little moments in an otherwise harsh world.

There is certainly more than meets the eye here (from both a plot and allegorical perspective), as the two poorer young people are alongside this smooth rich guy (Steven Yeun) who drives a Porsche, knows the right things to say, and is always self-assured. Yeun is fantastic by the way, and his role is one of cinema's great villains. You can read larger things into these characters as life for young people these days, with the class divide and in existential moments, having a great hunger, the desire for an answer to the enigma of life.

However the film certainly works on a literal level, and has wonderful ambiguity in it as well. It's a little lethargic in its first hour, but marvelous as it picks up. The buildup of tension by director Lee Chang-dong is masterful; the film gets eerie and scary without ever resorting to cheap shock moments. Great soundtrack and cinematography too. Highly recommended, but be patient with it.
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10/10
Snubbed for Oscar nomination
HamChuuuuuuu24 January 2019
I must say that this is one of that kind of movies with slow pace but great reward at the end, the three main characters are interesting (specially the girl which is lovely) and even if superficially you don't see anything particularly special, you feel curious enough to see what is going to happen with the three of them, specially when you start to see the key elements that make this movie awesome.

With a wonderful cinematography, great acting and direction, and beautifully adapted from a short story by Murakami, I still can't believe this is not nominated for the Oscar.

If you don't care if a movie is slow and for a long period of time nothing is going on, try this one because it has a deep story and the production in general is great.
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9/10
Lee Chang-dong's pyromaniac allegory mines into the miasma of today's South Korean society with an astonishing amount of wits and boldness
lasttimeisaw7 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
After an 8-year hiatus, South Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong returns with a bang! BURNING, his sixth feature, is a slow-burn mystery drama set in the city of Paju, Jong-su (Yoo), a novelist wannabe who takes odd jobs to make ends meet, one day, he bumps into Hae-mi (Jun), his childhood neighbor and classmate, who lives alone in a bedsit and leaves Jong-su to feed her cat when she takes a planned trip to Africa alone.

BURNING commences as a standard meet-cute, a slightly awkward boy and a pretty, proactive girl who daringly makes the first move. But Lee carves out a patiently detailed narrative to hint us that something is afoot with Hae-mi, for one thing, she idiosyncratically contemplates on vanishing, her pantomime-prone antics and theory of make-believing tally with the fact that Jong-su, in fact has never seen her cat "Boil" in person during all his cat-feeding duties (in spite of its dungs and the need to replenish the cat food).

Jong-su's budding love toward Hae-mi comes in for a cold shower when the latter returns from her spiritual trip with a newfound friend Ben (Yeun), a handsome smoothie from beau monde, who claims his job is "play", whose presence instantly pales Jong-su into a self-conscious gooseberry. Hesitantly hobnobbing with Ben and his friends in their posh haunts and Ben's plush apartment, Jong-su finds Hae-mi's ambiguous attitude baffling and Ben's mysterious charisma a bit daunting and suspicious. After a golden afternoon spending in Jong-su's derelict farm (which is put into his reluctant care after his father serves a sentence in jail), where the trio seems to enjoy a reticent communion, with Hae-mi obliviously dancing in the buff under the westering sun, and Ben confessing to Jong-su his bi-monthly greenhouse-burning diversion, an activity might stand for something far more sinister when Hae-mi vanishes from thin air after an seemingly interrupted phone call.

Intending to get the bottom of Hae-mi's disappearance, Jong-su traces all the threads back to Ben, after finding out two "obvious" clues, one is Ben's new cat who incredibly responds to the name "Boil", another is an electronic watch similar to the one he gifts Hae-mi, is later found in Ben's bathroom drawer, Jong-su, who has been delineated as a reactive, taciturn youngster and is characterized by his habitual thousand-yard stare, ably takes a vigilante mission to seek vengeance and surprisingly, Ben's instinct reaction leaves a more ambivalent feeling of what actually happens to Hae-mi, and what is exactly Ben's misdeed?

Loosely based on Haruki Murakami's short story BARN BURNING, BURNING's 2-hour-and-a-half running time manifests Lee's indubitable ambition to project a larger picture with its relatively simple narrative structure, and the most extraordinary thing is his ingenuity and boldness of interspersing missing pieces along the road for audience to piece them together and formulate one's own comprehension of the mystery, which makes for an immensely content and thought-provoking experience for those who can not be sated by a straightforward answer. Is Hae-mi a chronic fabulist, is there really a well near her old home, is she an "offering" of Ben's morbid ritual? Or a bit far-fetch, but the homoerotic tension between Ben and Jong-su is quite tangible, noting Lee's deliberately and cautiously deployed no-physical-contact communication between them, until the moment when Ben poke Jong-su's heart for that "humming" sensation he relishes and pursues, which prompts this reviewer to second-guess that his self-confessed jealousy might stem from an entirely different source, that might grant the love triangle with a new perspective (yes, he is seen reading Faukner, Jong-su's favorite author).

So, what is the bigger picture here? First and foremost, the gaping stratification between the 1% and the the 99% is too big to overlook, Jong-su and Ben's paralleled lives have no intersection if not for Hae-mi's existence, once their paths are crossed, the former has only his dignity to lose and the latter goes nimble-handedly to dissimulate any faint impression of patronage to create a semblance of harmony. Then, there is Hae-mi, another constituent of 99%, but burdened with a disadvantage of her sex, a girl who dwells on "small hunger"and "big hunger", hopelessly tries to compensate her material poverty with a lofty spiritual richness, her own misery emerges as a poignant criticism of a misogynous society (Jong-su's biting remark about her nude dance is a thrilling dagger into her heart) that only takes girls on the skin-deep value (Jong-su once remarked that she is ugly, according to Hae-mi, who owns up that her prettiness is totally artificial during their first encounter), which, if anything, is a tacit accomplice of pushing girls like her to the hands of the ilks like Ben, to have their personhood be obliterated without a trace. Incidentally, social commentary and gender politics aside, Lee also punctuates the story with geopolitical sideswipes that cover North Korea, China and USA altogether.

The trio performers, each richly builds a unique persona with either throbbing vulnerability tinted with a soupçon of self-hurting resignation of a benighted future (Jun, in her first movie), enigmatic urbanity smacks of danger and caprices (Yeun), or strange tenacity riddled with tiny bleeding wounds caused by toxic masculinity (Yoo), together they actualize Lee's perceptive vision of a masterpiece that pluckily delves into the mystical miasma shrouding our contemporary society, in tandem with Mowg's howlingly otherworldly soundtrack and the divine landscape (misty, royal-blue early morning, gold-hued gloaming, etc.) captured by DP. Hong Kyung-pyo.
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1/10
Why all the high scores?
the_nephilim7117 February 2019
First off this 2.5 hour movie is about 2 hours too long. For the first hour of the movie, nothing and I mean NOTHING happens. It's all down-hill from there. This movie is overrated, pretentious, and nonsensical. Don't waste your time unless you like wasting 2.5 hours of your time.
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9/10
Hint: It has nothing to do with burning "greenhouses"
EasternZZ2 November 2019
Warning: Spoilers
This movie is slow and quiet but I never found it boring. It really picks up after the midway point and you really have to listen carefully at the characters' dialogue as they usually have double entendres.

This is a very bleak movie and despite the "ambiguity" of the story, at the same time there really isn't. If you pay attention to the characters and what they are doing, you should have no problem knowing what really happens. This movie doesn't have any giant epic fight scenes or action scenes, but it is the quiet parts that really send shivers down your spine when you really think about it. This story has happened many times in real life.

Overall this movie really is good. The two actors and actress are really good in this movie.

9/10.
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Fascinating and endlessly riveting
Red_Identity12 November 2018
I found this to be perhaps the most suspenseful film of the year so far. That suspense is not the usual type found in regular horror or thriller films, but it instead comes from the atmosphere and pacing of the film that hints at darker truths and ambiguities. Technically this is superbly done, with the cinematography and score standing out in particular. Although it's the lead actor who has to do all of the heavy lifting, it is Steven Yeun's performance that leaves the most impact. He's practically an enigma throughout the whole thing, and leaves so much open to interpretation and perception that it's not an easy role at all.
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4/10
Overhyped
jrkdany16 December 2020
Warning: Spoilers
So much for the review this movie receives. A movie can be intriguing and interesting at the same time. Just by making the characters do some weird stuff and not providing enough reasons may make it intriguing but not interesting. When the movie ends we just wait for answers and they don't come. You can make lot of assumptions. You can assume everything that happened was presented as it is and no mysteries or twists are there. Or assume some of the characters were his imaginations, or assume he had bipolar disorder, or assume Ben and the girl are the same etc.

The BGM is haunting, great sound mixing and cinematography.

But in nutshell it wastes your 2h and 30 mins.
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One of the best films of the year.
jdesando4 December 2018
"To me, the world is a mystery." Jongsu (Ah-In Yoo))

The protagonist of Burning is a naïve young Korean, Jongsu, shuffling through a life that gets incrementally more interesting in each scene but not passionate until pushed by a lovely girl or a slippery enemy. Then it burns.

As the opening quote signifies, Jongsu is a naïve but romantic sort, inarticulate when he is in conversation but soulful through his eyes. Daily he can be seen either in Seoul or tending the family farm in the town of Paj. Director Chang-dong Lee slowly sets up the subtle class conflict with two other characters, the three of whom create a romantic triangle that provides the heat Lee incorporates into a central fire motif. His influence by Faulkner's Barn Burning is alluded to in the film as both works emphasize the uncertainty of finding peace in a world that attacks his family while the family contributes to the lack of peace.

Meeting a childhood friend, attractive and aggressive Haemi (Jong-seo Jeon) after 16 years turns Jongsu more sociable but still introverted. The real mystery is what she wants in a relationship because her new friend, slick and manipulative upper-middle-class Ben (Steven Yeun), is interested in her as well ("He's the Great Gatsby," Yongsu says). It is confusing for introvert Jongsu to deal with his lust for her and to figure out Ben's complex motives. Jongsu also envies the Ben's carefree wealth. The three hander takes off when the three are jousting.

Director Chang-dong Lee keeps the slim plot going frame by frame until we have some idea many frames later that this film may turn out to be a thriller.

Jongsu is in an existential state of uncertainty, where he receives stimuli but gives little in return except to the cow and Haemi's cat, Boil, which doesn't materialize any time soon. The trial of his farmer dad in court provides insight into Jongsu's troubled family life and the contrast to that of the rich, suave, carefree Ben.

Additionally, an unreality motif prevails where Haemi may be telling the truth or making it up, such as with the cat or her childhood trauma. At least in the first part of the story before we begin to see reality biting its way into inexperienced Jongsu's life.

The importance of this Korean jewel of a mystery lies not in the plot but rather the psychological miasma of youthful fears and exploration, where life is a mystery because he is experiencing it now, as if he were creating his own identity minute by minute, and as if there was no history but family ties and the inchoate desires of a young man. Burning is an exemplary international film that should receive an Oscar nod.
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9/10
A hypnotic menagerie of the basest of human behaviour
ctowyi17 October 2018
Terms like "masterpiece" and "breathtaking" are used far too often, yet they define Lee Chang-dong's latest, eight years after his brutally lyrical Poetry (2010). However, Burning, based on Haruki Murakami's short story Barn Burning, is not an easy film to watch. Allusive and elusive, it begins as a brilliant character study and gradually shifts its gear segueing into psychological thriller territory.

Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a part-time worker, bumps into Hae-mi (Jun Jeong-seo) while delivering, who used to live in the same neighborhood. Hae-mi asks him to look after her cat while she's on a trip to Africa. When Hae-mi comes back, she introduces Ben (Steven Yuen), a mysterious guy she met in Africa, to Jong-su. One day, Ben visits Jong-su's with Hae-mi and confesses to him during a pot session that he burns abandoned greenhouses.

In anticipation of the film, I re-read the Haruki Murakami's short story taken from the anthology The Elephant Vanishes. Like a lot of his works, the story feels cryptic, simple on the surface, surreal once it gets under your skin. There is a mystery but Murakami doesn't quite persuade you to penetrate beneath the veneer. I certainly didn't think for one second it could be adapted into a film because there doesn't seem to be much of a plot at all. My wife shared the same sentiment. We were all the more curious as to what Lee could distill from this intriguing short story.

Like Murakami's distinctive prose, Lee's Burning retains the other-worldly surreality through arthouse pacing and artful cinematography. The first act moves at a languid pace as we observe Jong-su's infectious reticence and Hae-mi's enthusiastic flamboyance. It is an unlikely match, but you will sense the possibility of a sweet romance. They long to cling near one another like satellites, but they will never share the same orbit because forming the third vertex of the triangular relationship is Ben, the coolly detached upper-class, the spanner in the works, the Great Gatsby.

As much as the first act plays like a meditative dance of a fever dream and an elegy for lost innocence, I also recognise that it will be divisive. I have a feeling most filmgoers won't have the patience to sit through it and be emotionally vested in the characters. Lee may be an extraordinary image maker, gently probing deep into the human psyche, its desires and impulses, but the story feels opaque, dense, resembling an enigma. But if one is a serious filmgoer, it is easy to slip into Lee's rhapsodic wonder of a tale, patiently waiting for the bomb to drop. It is when the head film becomes a mind film in the second act that it pays dividends tenfold.

If Murakami's short story feels deceptively simple, Lee takes it into the nether region of complexity. He unravels what it means to be consumed by a mystery and what it means to be alive. The production is meticulously artful - ponder over how Jong-su's home is a stone's throw from the border of both Koreas and how propaganda is blaring every other hour, and ravel in the beautiful light of the sunset as Ben shares his unusual hobby. Lee is able to externalise the interior states of the human mind in extraordinary ways. The subtext of social classes in the Korean society also plunges a knife into one's consciousness. He is also helped by a unique soundtrack of discordant musical cues that grow in mysterious power as the story grows in stature. Lee builds the final act to a feverish high and he almost wants to deny us the satisfaction of a resolution, but it does arrive at an ending that is shocking and inevitable. There is no celebration; there is only the quiet satisfaction of arriving at the solution of a baffling Math problem that has nagged at you for many sleepless nights.

Lee fills every frame with meaning, enhanced and accentuated in no small part by the three superb leads. He priorities rhythm and texture over narrative clarity, immersing us in a hypnotic menagerie of the basest of human behaviour. Burning is an engrossing tale of the unravelling of a rational and innocent mind by sheer desire, rich with characterisations and themes. It is a Korean film unlike any other Korean film I have seen and it immediately warrants a second or third viewing to catch all the nuances. I hope I don't have to wait another eight years for his next film.
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Soft Glass
tedg7 May 2019
Young South Korean filmmakers have a layered vitality one doesn't find anywhere else. Filmmaking is all about mapping what we have as cinematic conveyance to what we yearn for internally. That's the game, the expected contract between filmmaker and viewer. We negotiate that as we go, sometimes being outside the story as normal interpreters, sometimes inside the story filling in bits.

One way to go about this is for the filmmaker to trick the viewer when in internal mode to make assumptions that are later revealed to shock. A common technique is to tantalize with some erotic vision - easily cinematic - and later lead us into reviling misogynistic exploitive behaviour.

More nuanced is mixing realities between what we invent from what we are shown and what an on-screen sometime narrator does. This is rich territory for filmmakers willing to go there, and I think the more we experiment, the greater our vocabulary will be.

We are tuned to have an in-story interpreter. Our main character is a writer, and we are pointed to some books with metaphors that cross into reality.

We see him in the longish first act conjure narrative reality from sexual fantasy. Later, he literally writes what we presumably see, while sitting in the girl's apartment but outfitted for himself. The sexual tryst is still in the smell of the place.

We see his love interest go well out of our way to present the importance of (pantomime) living richly in a created reality. We have her describe the 'great hunger' for revelation, encountered in dance she describes and later demonstrates, in her own encounter in Africa - a trip likely never taken.

We have questionable memories. Is she genuinely the person who lived in the neighborhood when they were children? Is the father overcome by past roles he cannot escape? Is the newly recovered mother genuine? What role does plastic surgery play, once we see the 'makeup' scene at the narratively frugal end?

The referenced Gatsby story to those of us interested in these things, is rich with mixed fantasies from the writer and narrator. All the real action here is in the context of broadcast propaganda; the MacGuffins are neglected glass houses in a context where houses matter, and may even (dimly) reference quantum realities.

We never know who is conspiring with whom, who is imaginary and what motives are to be trusted.

So the art here is in transporting us into this folded space where we get destabilized, but not so much we lose our engagement. That's a major accomplishment in itself. Few can do it and most are Asian.

But we want the investment to matter. I want a part of my soul turned inside out to challenge me by the evoked inner me. Possibly, this failure is because I did not pretend to fall in love with the girl. The seduction did not overlap beyond the two young men, possibly because of culture, age and suspicion.
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7/10
Too Languorous for Its Own Good
evanston_dad19 March 2019
"Burning," to stick with the heat metaphor, builds itself to a low simmer and gradually turns up the heat until the whole thing boils over in the film's last moments. But I'd be lying if I said the movie didn't risk losing me along the way.

If you can't handle enigmas, stay away from this film, because that's all it is. It's fascinating to a point, and I enjoyed its refusal to easily hand over its secrets to its audience. In fact, many of the questions the film poses don't get answered at all, or at least you have to make up your own answer if you want the satisfaction of closure. It's stylish too, I'll give it that. But it's also very slow and languorous, almost too much so, and it ultimately feels like the pay off isn't quite worth the time invested.

Grade: B+
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9/10
The most thrilling film of 2018
frankde-jong3 August 2019
"Burning" is a great film where director Chang Dong Lee takes a short story of Haruki Murakami as a starting point, but greatly expands on it.

Right from the beginning of the film, when Haemi (the girl) gives a pantomime performance to Jong su (her former neighbor boy and soon to be lover), it is made clear that truth versus illusion is one of the themes of this film. This theme re-emerges when Haemi asks Jong su to look after her cat when she is on holiday (Jong su never sees the cat during his visits) or when Heami tells about an accident of her childhood.

After Haemi returns from her holiday with new friend Ben the theme of truth versus illusions seems to be replaced by the theme of the big contrast in Korean society. Ben drives a Porsche and is, especially considering his age, extremely wealthy. Moreover it is completely unclear where his money comes from. This drives Jong su to remark: "Ben is like the great Gatsby, like there are so many great Gatsby's in South Korea".

Ben (a perfect role by Steven Yeun) is not only mysterious, he is also creepy with his cynical smile. Jong su distrusts him more and more, but with his old pick up truck he has of course no chance against the Porsche of Ben in the competition for Haemi.

In a key scene Ben and Haemi visit Jong su at his place on the Korean countryside near the border with North Korea. While the three of them drink a glass of wine and smoke aj joint, the propaganda from the North Korean speakers can be heard in the balmy evening. Suddenly Haemi starts to dance on her own. While Jong su is hypnotized by her graceful movements and her beautiful breasts he sees Ben yawning in a bored fashion. His distrust turns to hate.

With this hate the theme of truth versus illusions suddenly re-appears. After all, we see Ben through the eyes of Jong su. So is his creepiness real or is it fed by jealousy? Even the ending of the film does not answer this question.
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9/10
Thick with ambiguity and slowly building tension, Burning is carefully crafted and psychological, leaving the viewer with questions and theories rather than answers
andrewroy-0431620 August 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Burning is an extremely well made film, but one that doesn't offer clear explanations, instead opting for complexity and many interpretations. It's a slow burn, intimately personal film investigating three characters, and all three give very strong performances. The genre and main idea is hard to pin down, because there are so many ways to interpret the movie. It could be a missing person mystery, or a psychological journey where a character spirals into paranoia, or a purely metaphorical rumination on class where each character is playing their own game. There's enough evidence to support any number of theories about who Hae-Mi really was, what Ben was really doing, and what happened to Hae-Mi. The reason it's so challenging to be convinced of one theory is that every event we see is through the warped perspective of Jong-Su, who has plenty of biases in play. I still ultimately believe that Ben was killing the girls, toying with them for his amusement and killing them when he got bored with them, because we saw how he loved power and controlled everything in his life. He targeted girls on the outskirts of society - the "greenhouses" that are abandoned - because they are easy to manipulate. I do think there's a convincing case that Hae-Mi committed suicide, especially considering the last words Jong-Su spoke to her were likening her to a prostitute. A key quote that could support either theory is Hae-Mi's words about Jong-Su, saying he's the only person she trusted and she cared deeply for him. To me, this sounds like something she says when she realizes the monster that Ben is, but it could also be something of a suicide note, expressing her appreciation for a friend as she was about to kill herself. I was so hung up on who she really was and what the deal with the well was, but I've come around to the idea that that was all a red herring and while there's no way to know whether it happened or not (it could be an event she remembered fondly but was minor to Jong-Su, or she could've made it up as she wanted a connection to him), it is likely a class metaphor in feeling like she's at the bottom of society. I've even seen the surprisingly convincing case made that Ben was purely toying with both of them. Jong-Su is just as much an abandoned greenhouse as Hae-Mi, and maybe when he said "I play", he really meant he is on an entirely different socioeconomic class than them and is a playboy who entertains himself with the emotions of others (like finding it fascinating when others cry). The social class themes are resonant and clearly play into all of the relationships among the three of them. One other element that was great was the cinematography - some of the wide pans, zoom outs, and landscapes were gorgeous and framed the viewer's perspective, making it among the most effective cinematography I've seen in a film. While I was frustrated with the movie while watching it because it was never clear what was going on, even at the end, as I look back on it and see the larger picture it's quickly growing on me as something close to a masterpiece, with lots of relevant commentary and so much to dissect. Be ready to consider every detail, because Burning is meticulously crafted.
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8/10
Struggle For Salvation
Khedro6914 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
When I come across a mysterious movie that is like a puzzle, I'd like to first gather all the pieces that are there.

Haemi:
  • She has left her childhood place, her whole family, she's in debt, has no friends. She's clearly escaping something, a part of herself like her past.
  • Another important thing about Haemi is the stories she tell about her childhood that are not clear whether they are real or lie since Jong Su doesn't remember them.
  • She has a cat which very much has the same quality that she has, stray.
  • The little light she gets on her wall means a lot to her.
  • Her room is really messy which signifies her messed up life.
  • "He's my one and only friend." and "He's the only person I trust.", referring to Jong Su.
  • Little Hunger (her past) - Big Hunger (Salvation)


Jong Su:
  • Everyone seems to be leaving him: mother, father, sister, Haemi, and even his calf.
  • Just like Haemi, he has problems that root in his past.
  • He's also looking for salvation (waiting in Haemi's room for light to get on the wall).
  • His care for greenhouses is perhaps because they represent his identity, the place and culture he grew up in.
  • Helping Boeling (not sure if I got the cat's name correctly) means helping Haemi to him since they basically represent the same idea.
  • Her concerns for Haemi are probably because she is the last thing remaining from his past and he's actually fighting his past trying to prove himself that he's not forsaken: he's not destined to be left by everyone.
  • His hanging jaw signifies his uncertainty and lack of confidence.


Ben:
  • Confident, apparently satisfied, and most importantly a player (as he admits that).
  • The cosmetics box and the accessory drawer strengthen his claim of being a player.
  • Seeing a new girl right after Haemi goes missing, putting makeup on her face, keeping Boeling and the accessories (from his previous victims), smiling at Jong Su every time he goes to one of his gatherings, they all show that he is confident about what he does even when Jong Su becomes suspicious.
  • When he tells Jong Su that he has this habit of burning greenhouses every two months, he's not really talking about greenhouses. By greenhouse he means Haemi who is that "greenhouse really close to Jong Su."


Even though Burning is not a hard film to understand for many, I had to do quite some serious thinking to fully grasp it. At the scene when Ben is cooking for Haemi and Jung So, Lee Chang Dong gives us the key to the whole mystery: metaphor. Without it I probably couldn't realize the reasoning behind many of the actions and emotions I witnessed in the movie.

To put it all together, Haemi is a stray who is escaping her past seeking the meaning of life in a fragile, desperate condition. Her plastic surgery, her sleeping with Jong Su even though she still carries the scar he left her in childhood ("You are really ugly."), and the anecdotes she recites are all sings of a battle inside her, a struggle for salvation. Also we must keep in mind that it was Jong Su who rescued her from the bottom of the well while she was crying and looking up at the round sky and sunlight. He is like a savior angel to her who came down from the heavens (considering the circumstances). The momentary sunlight she gets on her wall every day shows how hopeless her life is. It's in fact a metaphor for Jung Su, her only hope, but when Ben comes around with everything that Jung Su isn't, she gives in to her desires: immediate escape from the past. Although it later becomes clear that she still has only one real hope ("He's the only person I trust.")

In a similar way, Jong Su has serious issues in his past and his way of fighting them is his struggle to prove himself that not everyone has to leave him. He's not confident for most of the film, but when he's left with no options but to face his problem head on, he gathers all his strengths and wipes away one of the causes of his problems. Even though he doesn't solve anything (in the way we define "solve"), he does the best he could do. By stripping and burning his cloths alongside Ben and his fancy car, he cleanses himself of everything he hates. That is when he eventually finds salvation.
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1/10
Wait. I just spent 2:28 watching . . .
jeff-205131 January 2019
I'm not a neophyte viewer of films. I know what difficult cinema requires to find the art and/or beauty; Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Dekalog," or "Three Colors Trilogy" for example. Just because it's long, slow, and has an incoherent ending does not make genius filmmaking. As another reviewer put it, "The Emperor Has No Clothes." This is garbage. Pure. Garbage.
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1/10
What a bore
bliss663 February 2019
This is utterly tedious. For the bulk of the film you're just watching one man follow another man which is so completely contrived because the follower is driving an obvious farm utility vehicle and therefore completely conspicuous. If you're wondering whether you need to see this, give it a miss.
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5/10
Slow and pointless
biont11 September 2018
Okay, guys. This is one slow-paced movie that adds no value whatsoever. You waste two and a half hours looking at a "brain-dead" guy walking around doing moronic investigation. The dude is a total redneck, mouth half opened, slow and stupid. Pure in his heart, but dumb in his brain. So, that's what you get in the end. A story of a kind stupid kid and his crush. It would've been a hell of a thriller back in the days when the original story was written. But this story in 2018 is pure boredom, unless you are completely in love with this particular actor playing a limp dummy, or perhaps with the decorations, that are beautifully shot, I must say. For the overall pretty wrap of a simple idea I give it 5 stars, but would never want to see it again.
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