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Review: Burning

Burning
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PLOT: Aspiring writer Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo), a quiet introvert, finds his life taking a drastically different direction after a young woman from his past, Haemi (Jong-seo Jun), enters his life, forming a romantic obsession in him. But soon Haemi becomes interested in a sophisticated man, Ben (Steven Yeun), who she returns from a trip to Africa with. After a while, Ben confesses a sinister hobby of his to Jongsu, and when Haemi goes missing Jongsu becomes obsessed with solving the mystery. 

REVIEW: Director Lee Chang-dong is not one to often let his audiences off easy. Some of his movies (POETRY, SECRET SUNSHINE), are long, deliberate, quiet, sometimes dark dramas that seek to mine the depths of the human mind and hopefully pull back something insightful and rewarding. His new movie, BURNING, operates on the same level as a slow-burn character study that is much more interested in the characters’ behaviors than on a clear, direct narrative. This may turn away casual viewers, but those willing to engage till the end will be rewarded with a precise character study that morphs into a mysterious, quietly shocking experience that proves great things come to those who wait.

Based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami, BURNING follows recent college graduate Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) working part-time gigs in South Korea as he ponders his first great novel. While that sounds like the kind of person who you imagine wearing a lot of flannel and drinking things out of jars, Jongsu in an innocent, guarded, incredibly shy man who thinks far more often than he speaks. His life takes a sudden turn when he’s reacquainted with an old neighbor, the lovely Haemi (Jong-seo Jun ), who he falls deeply in love with her after she takes an interest in him for no reason other than she finds him interesting. But to Jongsu’s dismay he discovers Haemi has found another, more dashing and confident (and loaded) man named Ben (Steven Yeun), and now he’s nothing but a second fiddle. While Jongsu hangs with them and deals with their relationship simply to be closer to the woman he loves, he notices something is not quite right with Ben, and when Haemi goes missing there's only one suspect on Jongsu's radar.

At an intimidating 150 minutes, this is the epitome of a slow burn. Much like another acclaimed drama this year – Alfonso Cuaron’s ROMA – BURNING is an engrossing example of how to do visual storytelling right and make it engaging. Chang-dong focuses on Jongsu the length of the movie, emphasizing where he looks and allowing you to step inside his mind and feel what he’s thinking. He’s a quiet man, but when, for example, he gives Ben a suspicious look, catching him yawning as Haemi re-enacts a tribal dance from her trip to Africa, you sense his paranoia regarding Ben’s intentions. This approach goes with the movie from beginning to end and includes many scenes where we just follow Jongsu around. He studies the artifacts of his old home, explores Haemi’s closet of an apartment when she’s gone on vacation, and all manner of other mundanity.

Okay, I know that doesn’t as riveting as I’m hyping it to be. You may be asking yourself why you want to watch this young man creep around his crush’s apartment, cook food, or clean up cow shit on his family farm. But trust me, this is not some experimental student film where you’re supposed to draw deeper meaning from a man scooping cow crap (or are you?). Underneath the simple imagery – captured in natural light against varying South Korean locations – is a riveting story about love, loss and the – ahem – burning desire and obsession to find the answer to life’s most troubling questions. It’s a story that is at times sexy, then heartbreaking, then ominous as it transitions into a thriller, and finally, unexpectedly shocking. It’s so easy to overdo something like this and it into aimless pretention, or make it seem predictable, but Chang-dong glides from moment to moment and theme to theme with ease, getting out so much by doing seemingly so little. There's always something going on that kept me engaged, wondering what the characters were thinking and what the hell could happen next. 

Bringing the story to life are three incredible performers, the entire movie lying directly on their shoulders. Yoo gets a stunning amount of emotional and thoughtfulness out of a very subdued performance, and Jun passionately bringing to life Haemi, the beam of light in this tale, having an allure and lust for life that would find her smack-dab in the middle of a Fellini movie decades ago. In one of the movie’s best scenes, she, having just smoked some pot, takes off her shirt and freely dances as the sun sets. This one, continuous shot follows her from ecstasy to sadness, and Jun handles it with unflinching commitment and elegance.

The best performance of the three comes from Yeun, who has spent the last year or so trading the zombie apocalypse on THE WALKING DEAD for movie stardom. Here he gets to spread his wings and play a truly menacing figure, one who, as time goes on, becomes increasingly, deeply unsettling. Yeun conveys all of this without going deep into hammy, aggressive villain territory, always remaining deceptively kind, resulting in a creepy-ass performance that proves he has what it takes to be a true movie star. 

Going back to the intro, this is a movie that demands your attention and patience, and like many movies of this caliber and brand, it also demands a second viewing. Not because there’s a lot in this movie that’s easy to miss. Chang-dong places a strong emphasis on the little details, and if you’re invested your eyes will already be glued to the screen, connecting the dots as you go. Rather, BURNING requires multiple viewings because it is a meticulously, lovingly crafted movie that utilizes the smallest of nuances to evoke profound emotions, all before a shocking finale that leaves this masterful movie with you long after it’s done. Everything is executed without pomp, frills or even reliance on the score (even though the music from Mowg is terrific) and leaves you with no answers easily given; You have to earn everything you get from this movie.

Source: JoBlo.com

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