Burning delivers a slow burn in a rich character study
Happily for my taste, many films don’t rely on multi-million dollar budgets, flashy computer graphics, rapid-fire edits, loud explosions, and heart-stopping car chases in the service of superheroes. In alternative works, thought-provoking, carefully observed characters invite us into another person’s realm, often an individual so normal as to be unexamined and all but invisible in our own daily lives.
This is my lengthy but loving introduction to an amazing film, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. Through exquisite framing and arresting art direction, the unexceptional life of Lee Jongsu unfolds at an unhurried pace over two and half hours. Very little occurs in conventionally dramatic fashion, with volumes suggested through the director’s most delicate touch.
The plot is remarkably simple. Jongsu’s father is on trial for an outburst of anger the badly injured a neighbor, an event never seen but described in court. Jongsu must return to and care for the family farm. In the nearby city, he encounters a childhood classmate Haemi. She leaves for Africa, Jongsu visits her apartment to feed her cat Boil, and Haemi returns with wealthy friend Ben. Jongsu, an aspiring author with a degree in creative writing, describes Ben thus: “He’s the Great Gatsby, those mysterious people, young and rich, but you don’t know what they really do. There are so many Gatsbys in Korea.” Though the trio’s lives intersect and reverberate with suppressed emotion, questions hang over exactly what the truth about each of them is.
Burning is a film in which to lose oneself. No nondiegetic sound, that is, not originating from within the story, ever intrudes, as developments unfold: quiet, intriguing and perplexing. What is Jongsu thinking? feeling? Haemi? Ben? As ironic this sounds, Burning mirrors our own predicaments, that is, we ourselves try to observe, question, and figure out the people in our lives from incomplete information. South Korea’s nominee for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, Burning is in Korean with English subtitles.