Starring: Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo, Steven Yeun
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Running Time: 148 mins
Burning is a South Korean film about a man who, after unexpectedly reuniting with a childhood acquaintance, is introduced to a mysterious friend of hers, whose strange tendencies leave his own life on edge.
Having received highly enthusiastic acclaim the world over, you’d think that Burning is pretty much a flawless film. However, while it certainly offers up an intriguing and often even darkly unsettling two and a half hours of viewing, it’s far from the most mesmerising drama of recent years, suffering with an undoubtedly overlong runtime, sluggish pacing and some thematic misjudgments, all of which mean that, despite its core intrigue, it proves a frustratingly exhausting watch throughout.
But let’s start on the bright side, with that main dramatic intrigue. I can’t say that Burning is a narratively perfect film, but what I can say is that it gets its core atmosphere spot on throughout. That is to say that in its intentions to craft something both ambiguous and unsettling, it does a great job, and despite the frustratingly sluggish pacing, director Lee Chang-dong is bold enough to push his story in darker places than you would imagine at first glance, which come about seamlessly as a result of that unnerving atmosphere from the start.
The story splinters and changes focus throughout, but the core of the narrative – particularly in the first two acts – is the awkward love triangle that appears between the three leads, Jong-su, Ben and Hae-mi. Now, you’ve seen love triangles a million times before, but the one thing that proves really striking in Burning is how it uses a time-old narrative formula to manoeuvre the story towards more unexpected places, reminiscent of how David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive starts off in such orthodox fashion, only to move to something totally different come the end of the movie.
And to a certain extent, there is a lot of Lynch to be seen in this film. While it’s certainly a lot more grounded than Lynch’s most daring work, Burning’s greatest intrigue comes in the dramatic ambiguity crafted so well by the unsettling atmosphere, and even though I can’t say that the pay off is quite so spectacular in the end, it does at least engage and intrigue you from the start.
However, while Burning is definitely bold with its ambiguous story, it’s also heavily flawed in its attempts to tell it. The transition from love triangle focus to something stranger is impressive, but what comes about in the end doesn’t really tie up all too well, or bring about something even more striking to make you not even care.
Again, that’s the thing with Mulholland Drive, and while I’m certainly not its greatest defender, the final act of the movie is so far out that it makes you completely forget what’s come before. Burning, on the other hand, while bringing about something more unsettling later on, just isn’t enough to really grab you, and instead loses out on that big and bold gamble.
As a result, I found myself really trying to make something of the latter stages’ increasingly tenuous links with what’s come before, inevitably to no avail. And that’s a shame, because if this movie did take a slightly more orthodox and grounded approach to its story, there would have been some really interesting drama right up to the finish.
The clearest example of that is how the film handles the theme of the socio-economic divide. South Korea, like most developed countries, has significant wealth disparity, and that’s borne out in the contrast between Ben, a wealthy, player-esque individual whose bizarre hobby amounts to effective debauchery, and Jong-su, a humbler, weaker person from a poorer background, whose hopes are repeatedly overrun by Ben’s actions.
That, for me, was the most interesting part of the film’s latter stages, yet it’s definitely not the main narrative focus, which makes for really frustrating watching, particularly when the story moves at such a slow pace that there is definitely time to give a little more attention to that side of the story.
And there enlies my final problem with the movie. Slow pacing doesn’t automatically make a movie boring or frustrating, but there has to be something else bubbling under the surface when a film is taking so long at such a slow pace. Look at the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night, or even the recent Paraguayan drama The Heiresses, and you’ll see just how effective a slow pace can be in furthering dramatic power.
Burning, on the other hand, just feels like it’s slow and long for the sake of it. Taking well over 45 minutes for the opening act to really even kick into gear, and the slogging along over the course of the remaining 100 minutes in increasingly empty fashion, the movie just doesn’t have the depth to keep you fully engrossed all the way through, and that’s what ultimately made it such a frustrating watch for me.
Overall, I was a little disappointed by Burning. Its reputation perhaps lifted my expectations a little too high, but it still just didn’t have the consistency or depth over its entire runtime to really keep me enthralled. It has some great dramatic intrigue early on, and its bold style certainly makes for an engrossing and unsettling watch at times, but it fails to capitalise on its best ideas and themes, instead proving a frustrating watch with an excessively slow pace and an often misfocused narrative, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.3.