Flames lick the screen as they consume as they devour the skeleton of the green house. Silence fills the cinema as the audience are assaulted by the bright, orange light. The black silhouette of a small boy partially obscures the flames, the burning tendrils seemingly emanating from his juvenile body. The shot lingers. The audience captivated by its artistic beauty. This sequence is the embodiment of the film Burning.
Lee Chang Dong’s Burning premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival before being released in Korea in May 2018. The film has been making the rounds in selected UK cinemas over the past few months. The film was adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’ which appears in the collection The Elephant Vanishes. Burning follows the source material remarkably closely, however it is far more intense and darker (especially towards the end). Readers of ‘Barn Burning’ are left with an unresolved ending; Burning does not give its viewers the same.
The film follows Lee Jong Su (Yoo Ah In), a young man with few prospects, who bumps into his childhood friend Shin Hae Mi (Jeon Jong Seo). The two rekindle their friendship and Jong Su begins to develop feelings for Hae Mi. Hae Mi tells Jong Su that she is taking a trip to Africa and asks Jong Su to feed her cat while she is away. When Hae Mi returns from her trip, she brings with her Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong Su soon realises that Ben isn’t quite what he seems.
The film is a thriller but not in the traditional sense: it is a rich, character study as opposed to a nail biter. It’s “a gripping nightmare” in the words of The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.
Burning is set in Seoul and Paju, and it showcases some of the stunning scenery in those areas. From shots of Seoul’s Namsan Tower to the rural landscapes of Paju near the North Korean Border, Lee Chang Dong uses the aesthetic of each location to enhance the story. The film is a piece of art as well as a narrative, Lee Chang Dong uses his directing skills to mesmerise audiences.
The film is a tad too long at two and a half hours, but it burns just like a match thrown into a pile of wood; it devours its characters, and their hope, until all that’s left are ashes.