Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

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Michael Kerpan
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Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#1 Post by Michael Kerpan » Tue Nov 20, 2018 9:59 pm

First two words that come to mind -- brutal and brilliant. As usual, very little humor here, and none at all as one passes the mid point. Rather amusingly, the opening scene is deceptively HONG-like -- but the similarities end as soon as the protagonist moves to his old country home (on the edge of the DMZ). The plot is adapted (and expanded) from a Murakami short story - but is (very) locally particularized and given a far greater moral depth (as one would expect in a Lee film). At a certain point this turns into a sort of murder mystery -- but the mystery aspect wasn't (to me, at least) all that mysterious. Instead, the suspense turned on what, if anything, the rather (seemingly) weak-willed protagonist would do.

Apparently, the initial weekend crowds were big enough to cause the film to be relocated to a larger screening room at our local Landmark Cinema (Kendall Square). Our main local film critic, Ty Burr, gave this a rave review. I strongly recommend that people check this out if it shows up at a theater in your vicinity.

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Re: The Films of 2018

#2 Post by nitin » Tue Nov 20, 2018 10:12 pm

Definitely one of the great films of the year, the dance sequence that kicks off the second half was hypnotic.

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Re: The Films of 2018

#3 Post by Michael Kerpan » Tue Nov 20, 2018 10:17 pm

nitin -- Indeed.

Oops -- I forgot to mention the "phantom cat" Lee adds into the story. In any event, I think I might rank Lee as the most dramatically powerful film director alive today (even if I might, perhaps, _love_ the work of a few other directors a bit more).

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Re: The Films of 2018

#4 Post by ianthemovie » Tue Nov 20, 2018 11:25 pm

I will echo the praise for Burning which I saw several weeks ago in a sneak preview. It was the second of three screenings I had scheduled that day and as it began I was genuinely worried that I would be able to stay awake for it, but I found it absolutely gripping. For a 2.5-hour film it's masterfully paced. I had avoided reading any reviews and the trailer beforehand which I was so glad to have done, because I had no idea where the plot would go from one scene to the next. I recommend going into it as "cold" as possible (and definitely avoid the trailer, which is not very well edited in addition to giving away too much and being tonally misrepresentative). Probably my favorite film of the year so far.

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Re: The Films of 2018

#5 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Nov 21, 2018 12:18 am

ianthemovie wrote:
Tue Nov 20, 2018 11:25 pm
Probably my favorite film of the year so far.
There was a preview for Kore'eda's Shoplifter Family -- so Burning may have competition (in my book) before the end of the year...

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Re: The Films of 2018

#6 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Nov 21, 2018 12:21 am

ianthemovie wrote:
Tue Nov 20, 2018 11:25 pm
Probably my favorite film of the year so far.
There was a preview for Kore'eda's Shoplifter Family -- so Burning may have competition (in my book) before the end of the year... (Kore'eda took 2009 with Still Walking, Lee took 2010 with Poetry -- still probably my most favorite Lee film)
Last edited by Michael Kerpan on Wed Nov 21, 2018 2:15 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The Films of 2018

#7 Post by Aunt Peg » Wed Nov 21, 2018 2:48 am

Michael Kerpan wrote:
Wed Nov 21, 2018 12:18 am
ianthemovie wrote:
Tue Nov 20, 2018 11:25 pm
Probably my favorite film of the year so far.
There was a preview for Kore'eda's Shoplifter Family -- so Burning may have competition (in my book) before the end of the year...
I saw Burning and Shoplifters back in June and am looking forward to seeing them again once they reach psychical media. Burning remains my No. 1 film of the year to date.

Shoplifters opened commercially in Australia last week and flopped big time. And I was talking to someone today who watched Burning on a domestic flight within Australia. They loved it - watched half of it on the flight from Sydney to Melbourne and the remaining half on the flight back.

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#8 Post by nitin » Wed Nov 21, 2018 4:29 am

I personally rank The Wild Pear Tree as the best of the year but Ceylan’s Bergman meets Chekhov dramas are admittedly not for everyone,

Do we have a release date for Thunderbird’s release of Burning on blu ray yet?

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#9 Post by kubelkind » Wed Nov 21, 2018 7:32 am

Yes, the opening is quite Hong-like, as is something else. Did anyone else here notice...
SpoilerShow
A brief scene just before the climax where we see Jong-su typing on a computer at Hae-mi's house alone, implying the possibility that the entire Ben story, Ben himself and the second part of the film is the novel that Jong-su is working on and that she hasn't "really" returned from Africa yet. I can't see any other way to read that sequence. I must admit the first time I watched Burning that scene sailed over my head completely. My partner noticed it when I watched it with her. Very Hong Sangsoo-like indeed! What do we think?
Yes, I think this will be my pick of 2018 too, but then I haven't seen High Life yet. Or any of Hong's 2018 films to come to think of it...

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#10 Post by Boosmahn » Wed Nov 21, 2018 11:33 am

nitin wrote:
Wed Nov 21, 2018 4:29 am
Do we have a release date for Thunderbird’s release of Burning on blu ray yet?
Well Go is putting it out on March 5th in the United States... no word on a UK release yet.

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Re: The Films of 2018

#11 Post by ianthemovie » Wed Nov 21, 2018 1:38 pm

Michael Kerpan wrote:
Wed Nov 21, 2018 12:21 am
Michael Kerpan wrote:
Wed Nov 21, 2018 12:18 am
ianthemovie wrote:
Tue Nov 20, 2018 11:25 pm
Probably my favorite film of the year so far.
There was a preview for Kore'eda's Shoplifter Family -- so Burning may have competition (in my book) before the end of the year... (Kore'eda took 2009 with Still Walking, Lee took 2010 with Poetry -- still probably my most favorite Lee film)
I saw Shoplifters back in October, too...also a very good film. Burning was more to my taste, though, and I say that as someone who has only seen one other film by Lee (Oasis), which I found to be very good though not quite as well crafted as this.

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#12 Post by hearthesilence » Wed Nov 21, 2018 1:40 pm

This is probably my favorite film of the year as well. A lot to digest though, I saw it over two weekends ago but still haven't written about it. I could just reel off everything that's fascinating about it. It's incredibly surreal that they filmed this near the North Korean border, with propaganda blaring over the air (something that apparently happened a lot more frequently than what's heard in the film - they reportedly had to mix quite a bit of it out while redubbing the actors' lines via ADR). I suppose for the locals it's no big deal, but given the tense relations North Korea's had in the past year (albeit laughable in a dark way), it's pretty amazing the more I think about it. But outside of that, in a lot of ways this film reflects some of the sociopolitical tensions that have been amplified all around the world, and it does so without being very didactic about it.

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#13 Post by ianthemovie » Wed Nov 21, 2018 2:13 pm

hearthesilence wrote:
Wed Nov 21, 2018 1:40 pm
in a lot of ways this film reflects some of the sociopolitical tensions that have been amplified all around the world, and it does so without being very didactic about it.
That's well put; it's a testament to Lee's craftsmanship that the socio-political dimension of the film is potent but also very subtly deployed. I was so wrapped up in the tensions between the characters that I didn't think much about politics or social issues while I was watching.
SpoilerShow
Then afterward I began to see Ben as a figure for this kind of emergent, amoral, trans-national capitalism who treats people, things, ideas, etc. as disposable. Jongsu is a smart and good-natured would-be artist who has no place in such an economy and eventually undoes himself with his crime (following in the footsteps of his father). I found the film to be subtly feminist, too, in depicting Haimei as a "lost girl" who has no family or friends and appears to be suffering from depression or bipolar disorder, and who is preyed upon by Ben. Her co-worker's line "it's no country for women" seemed key. The class issues are also reflected by the various home spaces in the film (Jongsu's run-down family farm in the country, Haimei's sad and tiny one-room flat, Ben's shiny well-appointed high rise apartment). The line about hearing the North Korea propaganda songs from over the border stuck with me. I took that as Lee saying that Korea's problems are not limited to the North...
All of this seems somewhat impossible to miss in hindsight but at the time I was watching the film I didn't think much of it at all, because I was so absorbed by the tension of not knowing where the story was heading.

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#14 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Nov 21, 2018 2:20 pm

kubelkind wrote:
Wed Nov 21, 2018 7:32 am
Yes, the opening is quite Hong-like, as is something else. Did anyone else here notice...
SpoilerShow
A brief scene just before the climax where we see Jong-su typing on a computer at Hae-mi's house alone, implying the possibility that the entire Ben story, Ben himself and the second part of the film is the novel that Jong-su is working on and that she hasn't "really" returned from Africa yet. I can't see any other way to read that sequence. I must admit the first time I watched Burning that scene sailed over my head completely. My partner noticed it when I watched it with her. Very Hong Sangsoo-like indeed! What do we think?
SpoilerShow
We assumed that Jong-su rented the apartment after selling off the farm's last cow.... ;-)

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#15 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Nov 21, 2018 2:23 pm

I am _so_ glad people are discussing this! Gives me lots more to think about. Like all of Lee's films -- this is immeasurably rich and complex.

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#16 Post by senseabove » Wed Nov 21, 2018 2:29 pm

Has anybody come across any illuminating reviews of this? I'm a little baffled by the unanimous praise it's getting. It's my first Lee, and formally, stylistically, I liked it a lot—Lee's camera alone is enough to make me want to see more—but the second half didn't work too well for me. (I wrote a bit about why, but then my session's cookie expired and I had to log in again and what I wrote got lost, so I'll have to come back after work and try to write something up again if I have time.)
kubelkind wrote:
Wed Nov 21, 2018 7:32 am
Yes, the opening is quite Hong-like, as is something else. Did anyone else here notice...
SpoilerShow
A brief scene just before the climax where we see Jong-su typing on a computer at Hae-mi's house alone, implying the possibility that the entire Ben story, Ben himself and the second part of the film is the novel that Jong-su is working on and that she hasn't "really" returned from Africa yet. I can't see any other way to read that sequence. I must admit the first time I watched Burning that scene sailed over my head completely. My partner noticed it when I watched it with her. Very Hong Sangsoo-like indeed! What do we think?
Yes, I think this will be my pick of 2018 too, but then I haven't seen High Life yet. Or any of Hong's 2018 films to come to think of it...
I'd written more about this that got lost, but in short, yes, that's how I read the scene, too. I suppose it could be the reverse:
SpoilerShow
that he's actually sitting down to write is the fantasy and the rest is reality,
but that's just spitballing, I haven't really thought through what that would mean.
SpoilerShow
(And now I see another interpretation has been posted, and I like that one for making it less meta, but it doesn't make me like what would then be the faux-meta elements any better.)

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#17 Post by goblinfootballs » Wed Nov 21, 2018 2:45 pm

senseabove wrote:
Wed Nov 21, 2018 2:29 pm
Has anybody come across any illuminating reviews of this?
I enjoyed Violet Lucca's review at Reverse Shot (contains spoilers).

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#18 Post by therewillbeblus » Wed Nov 21, 2018 2:53 pm

I absolutely loved this as well. The socio-political themes and class consciousness are woven so well throughout the surface-level plot, which had a profound psychological impact on me: the 'Hitchcockian' slow-burn suspense had more of the effect of an overwhelming internal existential crisis (i.e. is life meaningless or meaningful; are we important or completely insignificant) than plot manifestations.

Regarding the plot:
SpoilerShow
Initially, like many, I believed Ben to be a serial killer or human trafficker (he has clear symptoms of a sociopath/has antisocial personality disorder, the greenhouses refer to women, etc.), but after reflecting for the past month, it seems far more likely that he uses his wealth and emotional restriction to help young women realize their dreams that they have passion for (something Ben doesn't understand/have a capacity to experience). In this way, his statements about power/feeling God-like, in talking with Jong-su on the ranch (I forget his exact words) still make sense, as he uses these grandiose desires for positive vs. negative effects on others, and keeps objects as mementos for people he 'saves' the same way a serial killer may collect them: they serve the same purpose as a trophy.

The film is obviously meant to be ambiguous in this area. Ben comes off as very creepy and disingenuous; something definitely feels 'wrong' about him. However, we have an unreliable, emotional narrator with a skewed perspective based on his own self-consciousness around Ben, coupled with Ben seeming genuinely surprised in the final scene when Jong-su claimed to have Hae-mi with him. If Ben had killed or trafficked her, why would he come to the meeting and seem expected to see her?

I appreciate the interpretations people have mentioned about the scene where Jong-su is writing in Hae-mi's apartment leaving the impression that part of the film is a fantasy/story. As much as I generally dislike the "it was all a dream" twist, what allows this film to transcend these frustrations is its ability to be vague around so many possible interpretations that the existential dread forces us to confront our own experience of powerlessness, isolation, inadequacy, and uncertainty in the world.
I found this film to be soul-piercing, and it's been one of the biggest surprises of the year.

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#19 Post by diamonds » Wed Nov 21, 2018 3:55 pm

I had never read Murakami prior to hearing about this film, but because it was so rapturously received I decided to read the short story it's based on before viewing. I must say, the film did not take the story in the direction I believed it would based on the short story. To me the short story resembled the surreality found in some of Lynch's work or in Eyes Wide Shut, with events seeming to stand for something for the main character, but nothing coheres. While Burning does dabble in that, it isn't as abstract; instead it grounds itself by firmly situating itself in the current global political / socioeconomic climate. As others in the thread have noted, the film contains numerous references to class (the differences in homes and professions, as well as the subplot with Jong-su's father), the place of women in South Korean society, border propaganda, and even an explicit visual reference to Donald Trump and his brand of populism. If memory serves, the film even tweaks it so that Ben's hobby is more implicitly classist toward Jong-su (barns --> greenhouses, which are central to the farmers' livelihoods, and thus his family's).

Whether the central mystery / thriller components successfully work to fill out those themes, I'm not entirely sure. For instance,
SpoilerShow
By leaving open the possibility that Ben did not murder Hae-mi and that Jong-su has merely bought into a paranoid conspiracy of his own imagination, does this undermine the (entirely valid) ideas it sets up about the wealthy exploiting the working class + the increasing isolation and confusion inherent in modern life? It certainly complicates them, but to what end? This is sort of why I'm wary of critiques of the film that hinge on an unsympathetic view of the main character (a few reviews point to Jong-su's misogyny and a perceived foolishness that lead to his final actions). I can see this film as in part a warning to be aware of our own biases and the limits of our perception, but I think Lee Chang-Dong is too sympathetic toward the next generation to be outright condemning his main character anywhere here.
It's certainly given me a lot to think about. The film actually reminded me a lot of Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love in that the tension in both arises from the central romantic triangle, the men's competing for a somewhat enigmatic woman until eventually
SpoilerShow
the anger and resentment boiling beneath the surface erupts into a final, almost inevitable act of violence.
Plus both of them use narrative ambiguities and phone call intrusions to great effect.
senseabove wrote:
Wed Nov 21, 2018 2:29 pm
Has anybody come across any illuminating reviews of this?
Adam Nayman's piece is probably the best I've read on it.

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#20 Post by domino harvey » Wed Nov 21, 2018 4:01 pm

I haven't read a lot of Murakami, but I definitely recommend his short novel Sputnik Sweetheart, which is kind of indescribable in terms of plot but definitely evokes crypticism in an effective and haunting manner. The book also taps into alienation in a scenic locale in a way that makes it a kind of literary Antonioni riff!

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#21 Post by Mr Sausage » Wed Nov 21, 2018 5:25 pm

I hated the two Murakami novels I read (A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard Boiled Wonderland...), and would've skipped this movie beacause of that; but the effusive praise you guys are giving it has me really excited to see it. It's not coming out around me until next month, but I'll be seeing it as soon as I can and will try to post my thoughts when I do.

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#22 Post by MichaelB » Wed Nov 21, 2018 5:27 pm

I've yet to be disappointed by a Lee Chang-Dong film (and I've seen most of them), so I'm keenly anticipating its arrival on my side of the pond.

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#23 Post by Persona » Wed Nov 21, 2018 5:51 pm

domino harvey wrote:
Wed Nov 21, 2018 4:01 pm
I haven't read a lot of Murakami, but I definitely recommend his short novel Sputnik Sweetheart, which is kind of indescribable in terms of plot but definitely evokes crypticism in an effective and haunting manner. The book also taps into alienation in a scenic locale in a way that makes it a kind of literary Antonioni riff!
I've loved the Murakami that I've read but oddly enough haven't read the two Mr. Sausage said he hated, so can't speak to those. But yeah, Sputnik Sweetheart is fantastic and Norwegian Wood is also great. Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of my all-time favorite books.

Haven't read the story that Burning is based on but I've been dying to see this ever since the Cannes praise.

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#24 Post by zedz » Wed Nov 21, 2018 8:52 pm

MichaelB wrote:
Wed Nov 21, 2018 5:27 pm
I've yet to be disappointed by a Lee Chang-Dong film (and I've seen most of them), so I'm keenly anticipating its arrival on my side of the pond.
I'm not a big fan of Lee, even though I've seen all his features, but (as noted in my 2018 Top Ten post) this is terrific: far and away my favourite of his films.

Didn't realize until just now that he co-wrote Park Kwang-Su's excellent To the Starry Island and A Single Spark, which also made me wonder what on earth happened to Park's career in the 21st century. He was arguably Korea's most important director of the 90s.

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Re: Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)

#25 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Nov 21, 2018 9:33 pm

PARK Kwang-su -- and mentor to many of the best directors of the 2000s.

Uprising probably damaged his career. A big budget epic (about suppression of Cattholicism in the late 1800s) that apparently flopped big-time at the box office. He later made Shiny Day (a/k/a Meet Mr. Daddy), which was a pretty well-done tearjerker about a petty con father about to lose a daughter (who he hadn't known existed until after his release from prison) to a foreign adoption.
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