South Korean theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Lee Chang-dong|
|Produced by||Lee Joon-dong|
|Screenplay by||Oh Jung-mi|
|Based on||Barn Burning |
by Haruki Murakami
|Edited by||Kim Hyeon|
|Distributed by||CGV Arthouse|
|Box office||US$6.7 million|
Burning (Hangul: 버닝; RR: Beoning) is a 2018 South Korean psychological drama mystery film directed by Lee Chang-dong. The film stars Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, and Jeon Jong-seo. The film is based on the short story "Barn Burning" by Haruki Murakami. It was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It was also selected as the South Korean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards, and made it onto the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film shortlist, becoming the first Korean film to do so.
Lee Jong-su performs odd jobs in Paju. One day he runs into Shin Hae-mi, a childhood neighbor and classmate whom he does not remember at first. She proposes that the two go out for dinner that night where she tells him about her upcoming trip to Africa, and asks him to feed her cat while she is away.
Before Hae-mi's departure, Jong-su's father, a bovine farmer, got tangled in disagreeable legal affairs, and Jong-su had to return to the farm. On his way to the farm, he passed by Hae-mi's apartment, where he received instructions about feeding the cat, Choffo. Hae-mi reminisces their childhood. Later, they have sex in Hae-mi's apartment. She departs a few days later.
Jong-su dutifully feeds the cat while Hae-mi is away - although he never sees it. Hae-mi ends up getting stuck at Nairobi Airport for three days after a terror warning. 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 responds that he does not really understand people who cry, and that he has never cried himself.
Ben is well-off and confident, though it's never entirely clear what he does for a living. Jong-su, an aspiring writer 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. On a visit to Ben's apartment, Jong-su snoops around and finds a drawer full of women's jewelry and decorations in the bathroom. Jong-su later joins the couple at a social gathering in a posh area of Seoul. There, Hae-mi tells the group about a dance she learned in Africa. As she begins to reenact it to the joy of most everyone, Jong-su notices Ben yawning.
Hanging out at Jong-su's farm, Hae-mi recalls a childhood memory wherein Jong-su rescued her after she fell into a well near her home. 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.
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. Her apartment is unnaturally clean and all signs of the cat are gone. When he reaches out to Hae-mi's family, he learns that she owes them a lot of money and they haven't heard from her in some time, although they deny Hae-mi's story about Jong-su having rescued her from a well when they were young. Later, Jong-su's mother gets in touch with him for the first time since he was young and they establish over dinner that Hae-mi's story was in fact correct.
Jong-su begins stalking Ben, staking out his apartment and following him to see where he goes. Ben seems aware of this but continues to treat Jong-su with condescending geniality, and claims that Hae-mi has not answered his calls either. One day, Ben finds Jong-su outside his place and invites him up to his apartment, where he meets Ben's new girlfriend and finds that he has a new cat which he claims is a rescued stray. Jong-su's suspicions are raised further on a visit to the toilet, when he finds a watch he'd given Hae-mi hidden in a drawer. Shortly afterwards, Ben's cat runs out of the apartment and Jong-su finds that it answers to the same name as Hei-mi's cat. Finally, at a gathering that evening, Jong-su notices Ben yawn during his new girlfriend's telling of a story in the exact same way he did during Hae-mi's dancing, and this is enough to finally convince Jong-su that Ben is a serial killer, and that "greenhouse burning" is his metaphor for killing people he views as expendable.
Jong-su has Ben meet him in the countryside, where he stabs Ben several times, killing him. He 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 the novels of Haruki Murakami.[clarification needed] 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.
Burning is based on the short story Barn Burning written by Haruki Murakami. 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 has only brought the original motif.
On September 5, 2017, it was announced that Yoo Ah-in has been confirmed for the role of Jong-su, a pure and sensitive young man who tries to solve a mystery surrounding the love of his life. Three days later, newcomer Jeon Jong-seo is cast for the role of Hae-mi who is the hometown friend of Jong-su and the girl he loves. Jun was plucked from auditions which began in August. On September 20, Steven Yeun joined the film, where he will play the role of Ben.
The first film directed by Lee Chang-dong in eight years, Burning was widely tipped 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 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.
The film was sold to more than 100 countries and territories at the Marché du Film in Cannes Film Festival. This include Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Greece, Poland and Turkey.
In South Korea, Burning premiered in theaters on May 17, 2018.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 95% from 131 reviews, with an average rating of 8.7/10. 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 36 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
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 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 in 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 offered that Burning "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 in 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 in 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", and considering that "[t]he film’s considerable length does make itself felt at certain moments" but ultimately "[i]ntelligence and subtle storytelling smarts are in evidence throughout Burning, which gratifyingly pays off the viewer’s investment of time." Nick Pinkerton, writing in Art Forum, 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—and Burning, for all its accretion of portentous minutiae, manages this only sporadically. here is a wonderfully well-wrought movie that lacks nothing but the essential, nothing but the scorch of flame." Sunil Chauhan in Eye for Film suggested that Burning "should help propel the south Korean helmer to the same heavyweight ranks as Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Michael Haneke" and praised it for being "a film that exudes directorial heft in every exacting frame of its muscular, meticulous 148 minutes" but concluded that "Burning, despite the promise of its title, plays it too cool." 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 depiction of the female character Hae-mi in the film has attracted criticism. Tom Augustine of The New Zealand Herald wrote "The film's sweltering tension and commitment to its lack of easy answers is commendable, but less so is its treatment of women. The character of Hae-mi while well-performed is let down by writing that paints her as the worst kind of male-driven sexual fantasy. She only really exists to develop the male characters' arcs and to allow the camera to artfully leer over her. For a film of such lofty ambitions and an evident desire to dig into themes of toxic male sexual obsession, its women aren't afforded their own agency." However, Adam Nayman from Film Society of Lincoln Center, argued and emphasized in The Ringer (website) 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". She concluded that, "Burning is a brooding tale about corrupted masculinity in all its form, but that story is inextricably linked to questions – centred on economics and class – about Korean women and how money and consumerism is such a key factor in how their very worth as human beings is perceived. Burning is a brooding, unforgettable film whose core thematic concern is the unseen feminine as much as the visible masculine."
During 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.
- List of submissions to the 91st Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film
- List of South Korean submissions for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
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