A distinguished filmmaker offers a film that enthuses some but will divide opinion.


BurningYoo Ah-in


Lee Chang-dong's marvellous film Poetry made in 2010 was his fifth feature but, despite the fact that his work had consistently won awards, that was the first time that anything by him was released here. However, there has been no follow-up until now which is due not to further neglect by British distributors but because Lee took so long to make another film. An award-winner at Cannes last year, Burning at once illustrates yet again that Lee's sense of cinema can be masterly. Nevertheless, unlike many critics including those at Cannes who gave this new piece a rapturous reception, I found my initial enthusiasm for Burning becoming seriously undermined. That was because for me the material, derived from a short story, proved too elusive to sustain satisfactorily a film lasting for almost two and a half hours.


Lee always tends to make long films and for the first half of Burning the slow pacing seems entirely apt even though it will inevitably irritate those who insist on films moving fast. Set in Seoul as it is today, the story centres on three main characters. Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) is a young man with an uncertain future living on dreams of becoming a writer. His father has a farm near Paju City close to the border with North Korea but he is currently in prison for an assault and Jongsu moves back and forth between the farm where he grew up and the capital city. It is in Seoul that he encounters Haemi (Jun Jong-Seo) whom he had known when a schoolboy. He is now enticed by her but in seducing him she might only be exacting revenge having not forgotten that in his youth he had dismissed her as ugly. Since she is about to take a trip to Africa, she asks Jongsu to look after her cat in her absence and, increasingly besotted, he obliges although the animal never seems to actually appear. When Haemi returns, however, she has a companion who could well be her lover and whom she met in Nairobi. This is Ben (Steven Yeun) who is rich and thus an unsettling rival for Haemi who makes Jongsu all too aware of his own immaturity and inexperience.


Accept the slow pace and all this is very promising. The acting of all three lead roles is admirable, the casting very adroit. In particular Yoo Ah-in perfectly captures Jongsu's sense of frustration over not being at ease in the adult world to which Haemi and Ben seem to belong. That aspect makes Burning at heart a psychological study. Yet Lee and his co-writer Oh Jung-mi are at pains to add a great deal to this but in decidedly enigmatic terms: references to metaphor hint at other levels intended not least when it comes to developments which link with the title chosen for the film but equally there's much talk of searching for the meaning of life as in references to the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert and their Great Hunger Dance. The fact that Haemi's cat may or may not exist but could be something imagined, something akin to the non-existent tangerine that she eats in mime early on, opens up another avenue entirely.


Those who adore this film obviously find these ambiguous elements and the mystery they convey satisfying in themselves and I felt that way too for some time due to the sheer quality of the acting and of the filmmaking. But the second half of Burning gets even slower without ever beginning to explain itself. Poetry also told a personal story but made it the more resonant by touching on issues of art and religion that gave it an extra richness and sense of purpose. Nothing comparable happens here and, where Antonioni's similarly enigmatic The Passenger recently reissued built to a mesmerising climax, this longer piece despite a final confrontation loses its grip so that ultimately for all the talent involved I just felt frustrated by it.


Original title: Beoning.




Cast: Yoo Ah-in, Jun Jong-Seo, Steven Yeun, Kim Soo-kyung, Choi Seung-ho, Moon Sung-keun, Ban Kye-in, Cha Mi-kinyung, Lee Bong-ryeon.

Dir Lee Chang-dong, Pro Lee Joon-dong and Lee Chang-dong, Screenplay Oh Jung-mi and Lee Chang-dong, from Murakami Haruki's story Barn Burning, Ph Hong Kyung-pyo, Art Des Shin Jeom-Hui, Ed Kim Da-won and Kim Hyun, Music Mowg, Costumes Yi Chung-yeon.


Pinehouse/Nowfilm/NHK-Thunderbird Releasing.
148 mins. South Korea. 2018. Rel: 1 February 2019. Cert. 15.