MIFF Review: Burning (버닝)

Pop the name of writer/director Chang-dong Lee on your list of directors-to-watch as Burning (버닝) is, easily, one of the most confident and intoxicating cinematic puzzles screening the festival circuit of 2018. Matched by sterling performances and a labyrinthian script that captures the essence of novella ‘Barn Burning‘ by Haruki Murakami, this is one experience that should find itself featured heavily in awards season – and quite rightly, too. A winner!

What starts out as a story of lost loves and old connections quickly becomes something far more enigmatic and it’s a testament to Lee’s deft handling of the story that it doesn’t slip into soapy melodrama. Much like the steadfastly impressive cinema that continues to come out of South Korea, Burning‘s breakout potential for the discerning and upscale multiplexes is all but assured.

Meet Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo), a disaffected and detached young man who works as a courier. A chance encounter sees him reconnect with an old acquaintence Haemi (Jong-Seo Yun) where we get the first stitch of how motives may not be what they seem. Haemi soons consumates their connection not long before jetting off to Africa and leaving Jongsu to look after her house. When she returns with a new man on her arm, the enigmatic Ben (Steven Yuen), things take a turn for the opaque…

I’ll leave any further plot details there as that would spoil the tendrils of puzzling behaviours that lay ahead.

Burning is one polished and disciplined affair. Kyung-pyo Hong’s (Snowpiercer) sublime cinematography is worth the price of admission alone, the film is gorgeously framed. As we wander through this secret laden story, Hong gives no pause in capturing the obliqueness in the palette.

Being his first feature in eight years since the underseen 2010 piece Poetry, Chang-dong Lee has lost none of his cinematic nor lyrical edge. Clearly understanding Murakami’s source short, Lee has captured the feel and flavour of it in spades here. As a return to cinema, this is one of the more impressive.

Performances across the board are top notch, with the three principles all in fine form. In particular note, Steven Yuen continues to impress with his finest on screen turn as the almost Gatsby-like Ben. It’s hard to believe he was Glenn from The Walking Dead.

A smouldering slow burn thriller, a drama around disconnection and hurt, a romance built on old flames and old wounds – Burning is a rewarding experience and should be seen on a cinema screen.