Where’s the fire? Here. That’s where.
When a film is mediocre – or at least, I don’t have a great deal of feelings one way or the other – it’s difficult to write about. This is not one of those films, so there is plenty abuzz in my mind right now. Burning is a loose adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story (‘Barn Burning’), but switches Japan for South Korea.
Saying too much about the plot gives away all the enjoyment of the film, so I won’t go into a great deal of depth, but while it remains faithful to some of the core constructs of Murakami’s, as ever, weird and inconclusive short story, it becomes its own beast. Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), a seemingly docile and weary young man bumps into an old friend from his village, Hae-mi (played by Jong-seo Jun, who delivers a great debut performance) and their friendship seems like it’s taking off before she returns from holiday with a new man, Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun).
All of this is set to a backdrop of youth unemployment, with Hae-mi working a part-time promotions gig when she’s called upon and Jong-su taking odd jobs and trying to maintain his father’s farm while he goes through legal wranglings. Ben, on the other hand is well-off, but never explains what he does; he’s elusive with his background but very present in a superficial sense.
The difference between Jong-su and Ben is made extremely clear; Ben has a sleek, grey Porsche 911, while Jong-su drives his Dad’s battered Kia Bongo truck; one has a designer apartment, the other lives in his father’s messy tip of a shack/farmhouse; Ben is clean-cut and dressed smartly at all times, while Jong-su looks like he’s still wearing his teenage clothes, his hair sometimes tufty – even their family set-ups are at odds. The two seem drawn together by Hae-mi, but they couldn’t be further apart in reality – which one is the reality for the youth of South Korea, and how frustrating must it be?
‘Hazy twilight skylines melt out of focus, reflections of pylons and telegraph poles glide over a windscreen.’
There is a constant state of guessing, which is part of the thrill this film offers. Is Ben some sort of malevolent character, or is Ben – the writer-wannabe – a paranoid, jealous bum? The two, whilst high, get to talking about Ben’s penchant for burning down people’s greenhouses (swapped from the barns, as in the short story) as a hobby, but we are left guessing as to whether this is real or some other, more sinister metaphor. Jong-su is left guessing too, and a good chunk of the second half of the film is dedicated to this crazed feeling, almost becoming a spy film as Jong-su begins to follow Ben around to get answers to important questions.
Over the course of the film we’re treated to a variety of South Korean landscapes, too. From the ultra-modern, flashy city, to the humdrum, frostbitten rural village and the quiet back road quarry, there is fantastic cinematography throughout. Hazy twilight skylines melt out of focus, reflections of pylons and telegraph poles glide over Jong-su’s windscreen, and a young boy watches the detail of a greenhouse burning in the pitch black darkness.
The movement in the frame is remains largely still, which gives all of this imagery an unsettled feeling, like anything can happen and you’re just waiting for the penny to drop. This is how the film keeps you gripped, using Murakami’s dreamlike story telling style but in a visual form. It’s a slow-burner, but it’s not just the visual style which is slow, it’s the building tension for Jong-su and his inability to get what he wants or to say what he thinks about Ben, about the nightclub, about his father and even his own hunches. The series of scenes where Jong-su follows Ben are both tense, but also tragic when you think back to the socioeconomic backdrop, as the disconnected youth looks glibly on at the wealthier man in social settings.
I should say, the films seems to throw ‘creative writing’ under the bus. This is Jong-su’s degree and in one scene is semi-mocked by his father’s lawyer. Is the direction (Lee Chang-dong) saying this type of degree is useless and part of the malaise of the youth? It doesn’t appear to be in the short story, so its addition here feels like a hint of shade thrown in my direction and in the direction of anyone who has tried to pursue creative writing. This is probably the only part of the film I didn’t care for.
While the conclusion of the film probably gives you more answers than a Murakami story usually does, you will still leave the cinema puzzling over the real answers to the mysterious questions it asks. It’s up to you to sift through the details and decide if there is a conclusive argument to be made one way or the other. Now excuse me while I go and check that no greenhouses have been burned down close by.