TIFF18 Review: BURNING — Alexander Heller Nicholas

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The blaze of admiration first sparked when Lee Chang-dong’s taut thriller Burning premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival earlier this year where it competed in for the Palme d’Or and won the FIPRESCI Prize showed no signs of abating when it made its North American premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Adapted from revered Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, the South Korean reimagining has since been named at South Korea’s Best Foreign Language Film entry for the 91st Academy Awards. With its widespread critical and audience acclaim, it is no hyperbole to suggest its chances of being nominated are extremely promising.

On the surface, Burning is for all intents and purposes a story about men and masculinity, but it is the very invisibility of women and the all-too-easy ways that they can fall through the gaps that provide the narrative foundations of the film.

Burning follows lost soul Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) as he drifts in and out of menial short-term labor near his ramshackle home that lies listening distance from the Korean Demilitarized Zone. A chance encounter brings him into contact with Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a now-beautiful young woman thanks to plastic surgery that he went to school with. While he struggles to remember her, he is clearly captivated although she recalls spoke cruelly to her in their youth despite her fondness for him. Developing an informal, fledgling relationship, he is thrown when she returns from an international trip with a new lover Ben (Steven Yeun), who on almost all counts usurps Jong-su on the eligibility front: he is wealthy, educated, generous, and popular. When Hae-mi suddenly vanishes, Jong-su struggles to balance his own paranoia with increasing family dramas and an old-fashioned broken heart as he seeks to answer one question: what happened to Hae-mi?

While the film’s well-executed action and unflinching, profound exploration of its deeper thematic questions circle Jong-su and Ben with increasing intensity, it is this question of Hae-mi that drives the story. This is much, much more than simply a missing woman as plot device: one of the most powerful parts of a film that can comfortably boast a range of achievements is how casually yet firmly the film addresses the pressures on women – not just Hae-mi and her colleagues, but Jong-su’s own mother – to live up to financially unsustainable images of femininity in contemporary South Korea.

Burning is never overt or didactic on this subject, but at the same time it is an unmissable drumbeat that is consciously repeated at key moments throughout the film. On this front, Burning offers a perfect and even more distressing bookend to Kim Dong-Myeong’s lesser known 2014 drama The Liar starring Kim Kkot-bi. While a more low-key film than the Burning and unarguably lacking much of Lee Chang-dong’s dark grace, The Liar amplifies its focus on how these cultural pressures impact of women in extremely negative, self-destructive ways.

Burning is a brooding tale about corrupted masculinity in all its form, but that story is inextricably linked to questions – centred on economics and class – about Korean women and how money and consumerism is such a key factor in how their very worth as human beings is perceived. Burning is a brooding, unforgettable film whose core thematic concern is the unseen feminine as much as the visible masculine.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She has written for publications including Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, Overland, The Monthly, 4:3 Film, Meanjin, The Big Issue and Diabolique Magazine, and has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema. She is currently co-editing a book of essays on Elaine May and writing a book on the history of women in the horror genre.