“December came, and with it the end of fall, and the morning air turned cold. No change in the barns, just white frost covering their roofs. The world moved on as always.”
Mood altering and possessive, here in the long-awaited work of Lee Chang-Dong is a mystery stuck at the borders of “passive martyrs and agents of triumph” (Film Comment Magazine). A mesmerizing work of isolation and attachment — the inconsolable reality that we are creatures left alone even in the midst of company. As the “dance of the Great hunger” to Miles Davis emerges at the border of a society driven by repression and another by existentialism, we find a female form extending herself to the sun setting colors of a dying cosmic phenomenon in the airing spaces of her consolation. Chang-Dong explains the scene well: “I chose to set it at dusk, between day and night. That as well as the location just on the border reflects the mystery of this movie, the uncertain line between truth and lies, the real and the false.” As Sheila O’Malley (Roger Ebert) explains well: “a world of fluctuating and amorphous borders, invisible yet pressing in on the characters.”
Ben (Steven Yeun) is the embodiment of the Great Gatsby lost generation of wealth shrouded by mystery and terror. As Murakami (Barn Burning) described him: “young man who’s a riddle . . . you have no idea what he does, really, but he never seems to be hurting for money.” Peter Debruge (Variety) is probably wrong that the film’s success “will depend largely on one’s capacity to identify with the unspoken but strongly conveyed sense of jealousy and frustration its lower-class protagonist feels, coupled with a need to impose some sense of order on events beyond our control.” To me, the heart of the film is the social dynamic and mystery surrounding Yeun’s almost sociopathic lethargy. Like Jep in the Sorrentino’s masterpiece (The Great Beauty), it almost feels like Yeun has covered the basis of worldly sought impulses and instead of cynicism and retreat, he turns to a more sinister form of stimulation.
Lee Jong-Su is the striving romantic who falls along the wayside in search for the purpose in his passions. “[H]azy . . . with strange relationships, missing figures, blank spaces,” a likely embodiment of a lost youth movement in the Korean milieu.
Jong-seo Jeon is the prisoner of her own magic, slowly unpeeling the tangerine of her mind, hoping that the audience remains suspended to the reality that the tangerine was never there. The sensation the Murakami describes in describing the Tangerine Peeling is the sensation you get watching Burning:
. . . if you see it with your own eyes for ten or twenty minutes (almost without thinking, she kept on performing it) gradually the sense of reality is sucked right out of everything around you.
Persistent in its drawing, the film lends the audience a little slack before returning to its proverbial gallows for the finishing blow. The ending is rich with ambiguity and yet there remains a sense that ambiguity is the only form of catharsis that the character inhabit. A sobering piece of self-reflection with cultural education and rich, depth and beauty becoming of the source material (Faulkner, Murakami).
For all of its strengths, the ending fell daftly out of sync with the pacing established. Scott Marks (San Diego Reader) really nails this: “for a film that tires so hard to subvert standard methods of storytelling, the action that climaxes the film comes as a cheat, a commercial concession of the lowest order.” Indeed, the anticipation of some semblance of resolution after indicative strokes of suspicion would have been best left alone given the alternative. As such, I agree with Anthony Lane (New Yorker): “I would have lopped off the final scene, which I simply didn’t believe in, and which, if anything, resolves too much.”
Remarking well on the state and quality of contemporary Korean cinema as a product of “operatic violence,” “relentless momentum,” and “exposing social ills and critiquing inequalities,” Inkoo Kang (Slate) describes Burning with fine precision: “unsettlingly tense for much of its runtime, but its greatest accomplishment is its portrait of youthful alienation, and what can happen when individuals are unable to ever connect.” As more and more filmmakers run the gauntlet of fear in losing the audience with films that run over two-hours, this year has some glimpses of promise with Roma, First Man, and Burning that the quality of longer films is worth the few moments of testing the audience’s patience. If these films get rewarded, others will follow suit and hopefully we too can restore the semblance of movie watching purity that we desperately need in our world of insatiable materialism, hi-tech distractions, and mindless entertainment consumption.
Burning is a rare film that has an indelible cover of magic that haunts you long after you leave the theatre. Andrew Chan (Film Comment: PRINT) describes the qualities of Lee Chang-Dong craftsmanship in creating “melodramas with sharp teeth and irresistible momentum.” In short, a director worth the investment.