Korean Cinema – 버닝 (Burning)

Burning is a taut and thrilling adaptation of one of Murakami’s most intriguing short stories, Barn Burning.

Of course Burning is not a literal retelling of Murakami’s story, it has been tweaked and reworked seeing as it is only a 20 page story and the film is over 2 hours long. These tweaks work so well and contribute to a study of Korean society that feels raw and rather brutal. It’s a classic example of class division, of the psychological harm that jealousy incurs and perhaps obsession.

Burning follows a young man called Jong-su, he works several part time jobs in a struggle to survive in Seoul, one day he meets Hae-mi, an old acquaintance from his hometown and they start seeing each other. Hae-mi goes travelling to Africa and asks Jong-su to look after her cat even though he has just moved back to his family farm in Paju. Jong-su performs his task diligently without ever encountering the cat. When Hae-mi returns from Africa she is accompanied by Ben a young successful man. And thus the tension begins between the two males.

Having Jong-su and Hae-mi come from simple means the sudden appearance of Ben a metropolitan man who drives a Porsche and lives in Gangnam is rather jarring and as an audience we never warm to his character. And he only gets more and more suspicious in his smugness and rather disturbing collection in his bathroom and the revelation that he likes to burn greenhouses. Abandoned greenhouses that take less than 10 minutes to completely disappear. At this point you start to think that he is just a rich boy on a power trip, later however when Hae-mi goes missing it becomes apparent that burning greenhouses is just a metaphor for something far more nefarious…or is it?

That’s the best thing about Lee’s direction, we are never really told anything concrete. Can we completely trust Jong-su, is he not just completely overcome with jealousy, Ben seems to have everything, success, fast cars, a beautiful apartment and a loving family. Is Jong-su imagining the scenario or is Ben really a psychopathic murderer of Women?

It’s a shame that Burning didn’t make it into the nominations for best foreign film for the Academy Awards this year as this is a masterfully conducted thriller. The acting especially by Yoo Ah-in and Steven Yeun is electrifying, they fit so well into their respective roles. The soundtrack heightens tension terrifically and the cinematography feels at moments whimsical and then all of a sudden concise and rigid.

Let me know in the comments section what you thought of the film.