South Korea's Foreign Film Oscar Entry 'Burning' Opens
Director Lee Chang-Dong delivers a challenging but richly rewarding film
I was introduced to the work of Lee Chang-Dong at the old San Diego International Film Festival on the UC San Diego campus when Ruth Bailey was brilliantly curating the films. The film I saw was "Peppermint Candy" and it devastated me and I mean that as the highest form of praise. It was about a man who commits suicide and the film travels backwards in time to reveal what led him to that point. It was a gut punch kind of film and it announced Lee as a talent to watch.
But Lee has not been a prolific filmmaker. He has only directed four films since 1999's "Peppermint Candy" and "Burning" comes after an eight year drought. So when Lee has a film, it is something to savor and celebrate.
Lee doesn’t make feel good movies. In fact, all his films are filled with a sense of aching be it from sadness, pain, or longing for something inexplicable. But his films also display a great humanity and willingness to explore our frailties and failings. “Burning” is no exception.
"Burning" is based on the Haruki Murakami short story “Barn Burning” and makes literary references to William Faulkner and "The Great Gatsby."
It begins as a portrait of Jung-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young man shuffling through life without much direction although he keeps talking about wanting to be a writer. He meets Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), a young woman who grew up near him and who clearly remembers that the only thing he ever said to her at school was that she was really ugly. They strike up a tentative relationship but when Hae-mi comes back from a trip to Africa with the rich and attractive Ben ("The Walking Dead's" Steve Yuen) things start to change and the film slowly descends into an unnerving psychological thriller.
Hae-mi returns from Africa talking about the bushman and their culture. She explains that there are two kinds of hunger that they refer to. A "little hunger" that refers to the necessities we require like food as well as a "great hunger" of people looking for meaning or purpose in life. The film looks to the latter and finds no clear answers only mystery and ambiguity.
Jung-su and Hae-mi desperately want to connect but they don’t always know how. At one point Hae-mi explains that in her tiny apartment there is no sun except for a fleeting moment in the afternoon and it's not even direct sunlight, it's the sun reflected off a tower and onto her wall for a brief moment every day. That sums up a lot about the characters' lives and how briefly they seem to enjoy a connection.
It's imagery like this that makes Lee's film so strong and so heartbreaking.
As with Lee’s other films, "Burning" is challenging but richly rewarding.