A long, slow burn
Tuesday, April 23, 2019
Justinian in Critics' Corner, Film review, Miss Lumière

Burning is not a doco about global warming ... It captures the urban and rural reality of South Korea ... A languid and intriguing film where things are never quite what they seem ... Burning greenhouses and mystery cats ... Disparity and enigma ... Miss Lumière at the cinema 

Burning, the new film from South Korean novelist and director Lee Chang-dong, is nothing if not a slow burn.

At two-and-a-half hours long, it's a wonder Miss Lumiere stayed in her seat, but really no surprise, given Lee's mesmerising command of character, mood and mystery.

Much awarded locally and internationally as a filmmaker and writer, Lee's unique skill is the ability to immerse the viewer in a world of his own making, a world at once familiar and strangely unsettling. 

Nothing appears to be what it is on its (admittedly) contradictory surface.

Lush certainties are established and cleverly, quietly undermined. All the while Lee is painting a picture of contemporary Korean society, one riven by inequality.

Thrillingly shot by Hong Kyung-pyo (Snowpiercer, Mother), the film captures both an urban and rural reality, from the hazy, smog-ridden countryside to the sleek streets of Seoul.

Burning is based on a short story by a Japanese master of the form - Haruki Murakami - so it's doubly ironic that it has been stretched to the outer limits time-wise.  

To be fair, its languid pace allows for the stunning cinematography and some equally intriguing character development.

Lee Jong-su (played by the affecting Yoo Ah-in) is a poor boy from a small village who dreams of being a writer. He is sensitive and gentle (he loves William Faulkner) and it is largely from his point of view that the story unfolds.

When Jong-su chances upon a girl from his village, the alluring Shin Hai-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) who works as a gyrating street spruiker, he is drawn into her mercurial orbit.

After they connect carnally, but casually (for her at least) in her crappy little flat, she asks if he will mind her cat while she's away travelling in Africa.

Jong-su, besotted, agrees, although the cat never shows. 

This literary device is one the director Lee employs in several instances in the film, where things are never quite fully revealed. 

It's a classic film noir technique cleverly used to add to a growing sense of unease.

When Hai-mi returns from Africa she is accompanied by a new friend, the smarmy, handsome and clearly very rich Ben (Steven Yuen) who never seems to work. 

He later tells Jong-su "I play" and refers to himself as a "Korean Gatsby". 

Ben reminded this viewer of another creepy rich kid - Dickie Greenleaf from Patricia Highsmith's masterful The Talented Mr Ripley.

A lop-sided triangle ensues with poor Jong-su on the outside looking in, a working class boy whose father is in jail, disenfranchised from all possibility - until Hai-mi unexpectedly disappears. 

Just prior to her vanishing, Ben has told Jong-su in a marijuana-fuelled confession that he enjoys burning abandoned greenhouses every few months.

The enigma of the film is centred on what exactly he might mean. It's a literary mystery as well as a filmic one that sustains interest.

When Jong-su fails to find any trace of Hai-mi and discovers Ben is looking after her cat, Jong-su begins tailing Ben's glossy Porsche in his father's filthy old farmyard truck.

The disparity is at first dispiriting and then increasingly sinister. 

Needless to say it ends badly, but your reviewer will not reveal for whom. That would remove much of what makes Burning so searingly memorable.

Burning was the winner of the critics' prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. It is currently screening in limited release.

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