The Movie Waffler London Film Festival 2018 Review - BURNING | The Movie Waffler

London Film Festival 2018 Review - BURNING

burning film review
A young man develops a friendship with a mysterious arsonist.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Lee Chang-dong

Starring: Ah-In Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jeon

burning poster

Burning is possibly the best film I've seen all year. This masterpiece is the result of celebrated Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong adapting the short story 'Barn Burning', written by one of the greatest living novelists, Haruki Murakami.

The drama follows Lee Chong-Su (Ah-In Yoo, considerably far away from the regality of his most known roles), a bored individual who spends his days waiting for the next opportunity to see his only friend, Haemi (Jong-seo Jeon), who's currently off on a trip to Kenya. His day job is to take care of her cat in an apartment downtown in the city of Paju, a ways away from his countryside residence. His cat-sitting stint comes to an end when she finally returns to Korea, accompanied by a man. This is Ben (Steven Yeun), a handsome, rich, fairly young guy who seems to have it all and has the smile to prove it.

burning film review

In contrast with the terribly laid back Chong-Su, who kills a lot of his time by masturbating, Ben is a very curious individual. He's genuinely interested in people, with Haemi citing herself as someone who's been certified likeable by him when Chong-su asks her why she's always hanging around with him. This doesn't mean Ben distances himself from our protagonist. In fact, one day while sitting on Chong-Su's porch during an impromptu visit organised by Haemi, Ben privately sits down with Chong-su and shares a secret - every two months, he likes to burn a greenhouse. It’s a hobby that gives him a very special feeling in his heart to dispose of these filthy, useless greenhouses, and it's been about two months since he last inflamed one. He tells Chong-su that the next one he'll set aflame is very near to Chong-su’s home. How this three-way relationship unfolds is breathtakingly tense.

burning film review

I don't want to describe any more about the characters or the plot, which keeps you at the edge of your seat as each layer of this mysterious character’s hobby is peeled back. The old adage of film viewing, "The less you know, the better," is crucial for Burning. I fear that even noting the elements that you should especially pay attention to is something I should be cautious about. That being said, this is not a film for passive viewers to begin with - every single line of dialogue, no matter how mundane, serves the great purpose of character building, thematic depth creation or plot development, sometimes two or three of those at once. The character study is extremely strong, three fully fleshed out characters inhabited through brilliant performances by Yoo, Yeun and Jeon. These thespians have perfected the lyrical language of Murakami, and you can read those beautifully illustrated passages of his literature simply in their faces: in Chong-Su’s befuddlement, Haemi’s sadness and Ben’s wide grin.

burning film review

Burning gets the highest recommendation from me but it also comes with a caveat - it’s a hardcore slow-burner. It’s entirely involving, but those with little patience for a crawling narrative over 150 minutes must be warned. That being said, it’s difficult for me to empathise with the idea that one could get bored with such an endlessly intriguing mystery, and such compelling performances, and such rich dialogue, and such sumptuous images captured through DP Kyung-pyo Hong’s lens, that tell a story themselves about life in the city versus life on the outskirts. Add to that a powerhouse ending that will evoke a very strong emotional response, one way or the other, and Burning has everything a film needs to be an instant classic. It’s the crown jewel of Chang-dong’s great career.

Burning is in UK/ROI cinemas February 1st, 2019.

2018 movie reviews