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Review: Burning (2018)

Review: Burning (2018)

Burning (2018)

Adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, Burning (2018), the seventh work by Korean director Lee Chang-dong is another example of his unique film style.

Lee Chang-dong, who turned from writing to director, emphasises societal themes in his works. His films are full of humanistic feelings. In Burning, Chang-dong describes the spiritual dilemma of contemporary Korean youth and the dualism of social class status. In Jong-su, Haemi and the Korean ‘Gatsby’ Ben, he creates marginal figures. These characters are in different states of mental longing. Through repeated comparisons, the film demonstrates the inequality between rich and poor; comparing it to the dynamic between ‘the sacrifice’ and ‘the God’ in a way that reflects the Fitzgerald-style social reality. Unlike its predecessor Secret Sunshine (2007), Burning concludes this irreconcilable dynamic with a killing.

Chang-dong uses a highly poetic and image rich lens-language to structure his movie world. Various long-takes in Burning unearth the most artistic moments in life. In three-minute long-take, the camera rotates with Haemi’s dance, giving the picture a sense of rhythm but also, allowing the audience to appreciate the last dance of Haemi’s life. The repeated scenery shots of fields are like the blank spaces in Chinese paintings, giving the film a respite from the narrative and audience time to reflect. Similar to what Chang-dong has done in his first three movies – Green Fish (1997), Peppermint Candy (2000) and Oasis (2002) – the director uses many symbols. The plastic greenhouse refers to unemployed youth and the dry well refers to the predicaments of life, giving the audience enough space for their own interpretations.

Most people accustomed to the genre narratives of Hollywood blockbusters are more interested in exciting sequences and straightforward storylines. This slow-paced and visually-rich art film performed poorly at the box office. It was criticized for being deliberately mystifying and overly artistic. Chang-dong might have created Burning for the public but, they did not recognize it and film was a financial failure.

Movie art should not be purely market-oriented but represent many diverse styles. The fact that Burning achieved the highest jury score in the history of the Cannes Film Festival is enough to prove that the film can meet the aesthetic expectations of some audiences. For those drawn to the beauty of poetic filmmaking – no matter how low the box office takings were – Burning is a work of genius.

Written for The Film Dispatch by Ying He. 


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