Film Review – Burning (2018)

If there’s any other film this year that is not just as kaleidoscopic as Lee Chang-dong’s masterful new offering then we will eat out hats for such is the brilliance of Burning that it will take some beating in the coming ten months to even make a dent. Thoughtful, thrilling, melancholic and many more things in between, it’s one of those smaller films that is being talked about in most film circles as one of the most impressive of the last decade, let along 2018, yet it may well pass many filmgoers by and hasn’t been found a place in the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars (granted, the line-up this year is very strong, arguably stronger than Best Picture). But trust us when we say that Burning is an absolute beauty of a film that is as good as they come.

Director Chang-dong’s first film in eight years – he has had his producer duties hat on in the interim, mind you – Burning introduces us to Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), a young aspiring writer who like many is struggling to find a real outlet for his desire to be a novelist and, to make ends meet, he is taking on some part-time work as a delivery man. On one such day, he bumps into an old school/neighbourhood friend Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun) and the two begin to reconnect after many years leading to Hae-mi asking Jong-su if he would feed her cat while she takes an impromptu trip to Africa. On her return, she is joined by a mysterious guy named Ben (Steven Yeun) who after a few awkward coffee and dinner meet-ups, reveals his “work” and his appetite for a particular interest.

The intensity is almost too much to bear through the final hour but Burning isn’t at breakneck speed and, although it thrusts us into the final revelations as quickly as possible, this is about being measured …. and purposeful. That said, are moments of pause and reflection during the film’s 2hr 28 mins runtime while still maintaining its tautness, propelling it to places others just don’t and it’s in these quieter moments that the film becomes even more engrossing. Two sequences that encapsulate the film’s themes are both harrowing yet beautiful, tense and yet absolutely fascinating.

Indeed, aside from the fact that its tautness makes for such a compelling thriller, this isn’t just at turns a commentary on lower working class and upper class, social anxieties and self-confidence, jealousy and the relationships of fathers and sons. There is so much to unpick and unwrap here that you would be remiss in thinking it’s probably all a little too much but under Chang-dong’s masterful direction and his screenplay with co-writer Jungmi Oh, everything is so precisely and purposefully structured that it all comes at you in a beautiful wave of exploration and imagination.

It’s hard to define Burning without either giving the game away nor putting too lofty an expectation on it but believe us when we say that there is nothing quite like it. Wonderful to look at, magnificently performed by an outstanding ensemble (Yeun, in particular, is off-the-charts brilliant) and directed with a calm, decisive yet dazzling assurance from a filmmaker that is consistently delivering some of the very best cinema – and this is no different.

Scott J.Davis | [rating=5]

Drama, Mystery | South Korea, 2018 | 15 | Subtitles | 1st February 2019 (UK) | Thunderbird Releasing | Dir.Lee Chang-dong | Jong-seo Jeon, Steven Yeun, Ah-In Yoo