Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Lee Chang-dong|
|Based on||"Barn Burning"|
by Haruki Murakami
|Distributed by||CGV Arthouse|
|Box office||US$7.1 million|
Burning (Korean: 버닝; RR: Beoning) is a 2018 South Korean psychological thriller mystery drama film co-written, co-produced, and directed by Lee Chang-dong. Based on the short story "Barn Burning" from The Elephant Vanishes by author Haruki Murakami, it stars Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, and Jeon Jong-seo. The movie depicts a young deliveryman, Jong-su (Yoo), who runs into his childhood friend, Hae-mi (Jeon). She asks if he would look after her cat while she is away on a trip to Africa. On her return, she introduces to Jong-su an enigmatic young man named Ben (Yeun), who she met during her trip. One day, Ben tells Jong-su about an unusual hobby of his.
The first film directed by Lee in eight years, the film premiered on May 16, 2018, at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d'Or; it ended up receiving the FIPRESCI International Critics' Prize at the festival. It was released the following day in South Korea and on October 26, 2018, in the United States.
It received almost universal critical acclaim, particularly for its sense of unease, ambiguous narrative, and performances. It was selected as the South Korean entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards; although it was not nominated, it became the first Korean film to make it to the final nine-film shortlist; another South Korean film, Parasite (2019), won that award at the following year's ceremony. It received numerous other accolades, and was included on several critics' "top ten" lists for the year 2018, notably those of The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press; it was also included on some lists of the greatest films of the decade.
An aspiring young novelist, Lee Jong-su performs odd jobs in Paju. One day he runs into Shin Hae-mi, a childhood neighbor and classmate, at a promotion at which he is making a delivery. Jong-su initially does not remember her, but Shin Hae-mi tells him she had plastic surgery. Jong-su then remembers and gives her a pink watch that he won at the promotion. Later, she tells him about her upcoming trip to Africa, and asks him to feed her cat, Boil, while she is away. Before Hae-mi's departure, Jong-su's father, a cattle farmer, got tangled in disagreeable legal affairs, and Jong-su had to return to the farm. Jong-su passes by Hae-mi's apartment, where he receives instructions about feeding the cat. Later, they have sex in Hae-mi's apartment.
After Hae-mi departs, Jong-su dutifully feeds her cat, although he never sees it. He does, however, know that a cat is there because he finds feces in the cat's litter box. He also begins habitually masturbating in her apartment. One day Hae-mi calls, saying she had become stranded at Nairobi Airport for three days after a bombing nearby. When Jong-su comes to pick her up, she arrives with Ben, whom she met and bonded with during the crisis. The three go out for dinner, where Hae-mi recalls a sunset she witnessed during her travels. Moved by the memory, she cries and confesses that she wanted to disappear. Ben is well-off and confident, though it is never entirely clear what he does for a living. Jong-su, struggling to get by and taking care of his family farm while his father is in prison, envies Ben and his relationship with Hae-mi from afar.
Hanging out at Jong-su's farm, the trio smoke cannabis and Hae-mi dances topless. After Hae-mi has fallen asleep on the sofa, Ben confesses a strange hobby: Every two months, he burns an abandoned greenhouse. He notes that Jong-su's rural neighborhood is full of greenhouses. When asked when his next burning will take place, Ben claims it will be very soon and close to Jong-su's house. Jong-su tells Ben that he loves Hae-mi, but later berates Hae-mi for disrobing in front of other men. Hae-mi quietly gets into Ben's car and as they leave, Jong-su tells Ben he will keep an eye on the greenhouses in his area.
Over the following days, Jong-su keeps watch around the neighborhood to see if any greenhouses burn down, but none do. One afternoon, in front of an intact greenhouse that he happens to be inspecting, he receives a call from Hae-mi, which cuts off after a few seconds of ambiguous noises. Jong-su becomes worried as she does not answer any of his calls afterwards, and begins to investigate after her phone number becomes disconnected. Eventually, he convinces the landlady to let him into Hae-mi's apartment so that he can feed her cat. Hae-mi's apartment is unnaturally clean; her pink suitcase remains; and all signs of the cat are gone. Jong-su begins stalking Ben, staking out his apartment and following him to see where he goes. When he sees Ben's Porsche parked outside a restaurant, he goes inside to confront him. A young woman suddenly approaches the table, apologizing to Ben for being late. As the three of them leave the restaurant, Jong-su asks Ben if he has heard from Hae-mi and whether she had gone on a trip. Ben says he has not heard from her, and he doubts she had gone on a trip because she could not afford it. Ben says Jong-su was the only person she trusted and that it made him jealous for the first time in his life.
One day, Ben finds Jong-su outside his place and invites him up to his apartment, where he finds that he has a new cat, which Ben claims is a rescued stray. Jong-su's suspicions are raised further when on a visit to the toilet he finds a pink watch, similar to the one he had given Hae-mi, hidden in a drawer containing other pieces of women’s jewelry. Shortly afterwards, Ben's cat runs out of the apartment and Jong-su finds that it answers to "Boil", the same name as Hae-mi's cat.
Jong-su asks to meet Ben in the countryside, claiming he is with Hae-mi. After Ben sees that Hae-mi is not there, Jong-su stabs Ben several times, killing him. Jong-su douses Ben's car and body in gasoline and sets it all aflame, tossing his blood-soaked clothes in as well. He stumbles naked to his truck and drives off.
Developed as the work of the international project which was based on one of Haruki Murakami's short stories in The Elephant Vanishes, "Barn Burning". Production was set to begin in November 2016 but was delayed by a dispute between Murakami and NHK, which owns the rights to many of Murakami's works. It also merges elements of William Faulkner's 1939 short story of the same name. In October 2016, however, Lee said, "it is a story about young people in today’s world. When they think of their lives and the world, it must feel like a mystery", at the Busan International Film Festival. In September 2017, the studio said that it had only brought the basic outlines of the story.
On September 5, 2017, it was announced that Yoo Ah-in had been confirmed for the role of Jong-su. Three days later, newcomer Jeon Jong-seo was cast for the role of Hae-mi based on auditions which began in August. On September 20, Steven Yeun joined the film as Ben.
The first film directed by Lee Chang-dong in eight years, Burning was widely predicted by film critics and insiders to be an in-competition entry at the upcoming 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Lee's 2007 film Secret Sunshine and his 2010 film Poetry both premiered as in-competition entries at the Cannes Film Festival. In April 2018, Burning was among the lineup of in-competition entries announced for the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.
Burning was sold to more than 100 countries and territories at the Marché du Film in Cannes Film Festival. This included Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Greece, Poland and Turkey.
As of 7 March 2019[update], Burning has grossed $719,772 in the United States and Canada, and $6.1 million in other territories (including $4.2 million in South Korea), for a total worldwide gross of $6.8 million.
On its opening day in South Korea, Burning attracted 52,324 viewers in total, ranking second at the box office behind Deadpool 2 (248,904 viewers). Over the first weekend of its release, Burning received 220,717 admissions, placing third at the local box office. By the end of its run, the film recorded 528,168 admissions in its home country.
In its opening weekend in the United States, the film made $26,130 from two theaters. The film had its widest release in its third weekend, playing in 27 theaters and grossing $76,608.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 95% from 185 reviews, with an average rating of 8.59/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Burning patiently lures audiences into a slow-burning character study that ultimately rewards the viewer's patience -- and subverts many of their expectations." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 90 out of 100, based on 38 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
Los Angeles Times's Justin Chang called it "a masterpiece of psychological unease— the most lucid and absorbing new movie I've seen this year, as well as the most layered and enigmatic." The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw called it "a gripping nightmare" and lavished praise on how "Lee creates a sense of mood and place with masterly flair." Sight & Sound rated it the third best film of 2018, and Jessica Kiang wrote in her Cannes review, "The embers are banked up so gradually that it’s not until a few hours after the ending of this elusive, riveting masterpiece that you are far enough away to appreciate the scale of the conflagration." Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph observed, "This is Lee’s closest ever film to a thriller, but it defies expectations, offering multiple, murky solutions to a set of mysteries at once." Vulture's Emily Yoshida praised the film for its "perception of the rich vampirizing youth — not directly biologically or physically or financially, but emotionally" but considered that "Burning lost its steam in its second half". Peter Debruge of Variety suggested that "[t]he degree to which Burning succeeds will depend largely on one's capacity to identify with the unspoken but strongly conveyed sense of jealousy and frustration its lower-class protagonist feels". Rolling Stone's Peter Travers wrote that the film "sizzles with a cumulative power that will knock the wind out of you" and declared that "Lee has crafted a hypnotic and haunting film that transcends genre to dig deep into the human condition. You won’t be able to get it out of your head."
Geoff Andrew of Time Out was similarly positive, hailing it as a "movie rich in teasing ambiguities and possible lies... Lee's interest lies not in crime-solving but in exploring Jongsu's emotional confusion... Both a slow-burn suspense drama and an intriguing enigma, his film is beautifully executed". Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter reacted enthusiastically to the film, writing that "[t]his is a beautifully crafted film loaded with glancing insights and observations into an understated triangular relationship, one rife with subtle perceptions about class privilege, reverberating family legacies, creative confidence, self-invention, sexual jealousy, justice and revenge". For The Canadian Press, David Friend said the film includes "simmering layers of subtext and tension build over the film's two-and-a-half hour runtime."
Nick Pinkerton, writing in ArtForum, was more muted, writing that "Burning is strewn with all sorts of information whose exact meaning and validity is impossible to determine... a film with such a diffident, often passive protagonist must generate its tensions and attractions elsewhere—memorable supporting players, a tactile atmosphere, a complex sense of the social sphere, an emphatic emotionalism".
The depiction of the female character Hae-mi in the film attracted some criticism. However, Adam Nayman from Film Society of Lincoln Center argued and emphasized for The Ringer that the story is "told fully from Jongsu's point of view," so "it's fair to ask whether Lee Chang Dong is cultivating true audience solidarity or urging us to understand the story exclusively through the lens of his hero's prejudices: to see Haemi and Ben as idealized and demonized figures, respectively." Phoebe Chen of the Film Feminist Journal: Another Gaze, analyzed that Haemi's existence had a grander purpose in the film, and wrote, "If you know Burning is adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, however loosely, you know that Haemi will vanish. The trope of the missing woman is built into Murakami's narrative DNA: her vanishing will preoccupy the protagonist, neurotically at first, then fade over the months and years to a dull malaise", and "The mystery of Haemi’s disappearance is technically 'solved', but becomes supplanted by one grander: the mystery of a world that tantalises with the hope of futurity while locking its millions of subjects in a cold impasse." Alexandra Heller-Nicholas of Alliance of Women Film Journalists emphasized that the character of Hae-mi is much more than simply a missing woman as plot device but one of the most powerful parts of a film that casually yet firmly addresses the pressures on women, "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 won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It became the highest-rated film in the history of Screen International’s Cannes jury grid. Burning also won Best Foreign Language Film in Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Best Foreign Language Film in Toronto Film Critics Association and National Board of Review's Top Five Foreign Language Film. It went on to be nominated for three Asia Pacific Screen Awards, winning the Jury Grand Prize. It was included on Roger Ebert's Great Movies. It was nominated for eight Asian Film Awards, including Best Film, and won Best Director award. In September 2019, it won Saturn Award for Best International Film.
Burning was selected as the South Korean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 91st Academy Awards; although it was not nominated, it became the first Korean film to make it to the final nine-film shortlist.
Top ten lists
Burning appeared on many critics' year-end top ten lists for 2018, among them:
- 1st – The A.V. Club
- 1st – Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times
- 1st – Jake Coyle, Associated Press
- 1st – John Powers, Vogue magazine
- 2nd – Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
- 2nd – Film Comment
- 4th – Marlow Stern, The Daily Beast
- 5th – Barry Hertz, The Globe and Mail
- 6th – David Ehrlich, IndieWire
Top 10 (not ranked)
In late 2019, Burning also appeared on the "Best films of the decade" lists of Rolling Stone, The A.V. Club, Associated Press, The Boston Globe, Indiewire, Insider, and Film Comment.
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- List of South Korean submissions for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
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