The main criticism I lob at just about every movie I see is that it could easily have been a bit shorter. Even the leanest movies can usually stand to lose 10-20 minutes to a cold-hearted editor with an agenda toward pacing, and as much as I like to spend endless time in the theater, it’s always with a little hesitation that I plunk down in a seat for a film that exceeds two hours. But when it is done right — when a filmmaker earns their film’s excessive length, well, there’s nothing better.
Enter Burning, the latest from legendary Korean filmmaker Chang-dong Lee, which clocks in at a hefty 148 minutes, each and every one indispensable to the film on the whole. What begins as a cheeky romance slowly descends into a paranoid thriller of the highest order. As the story unspools at a delectably metered pace, the experience of watching goes from curiously enjoyable to a level of nail-biting intensity that, with the deliciously ambiguous ending, is never given a chance to let up.
This meaty tale, based on the short story Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami, follows Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) as he broods his way through the early days of post-college life. He fancies himself a writer, but with an absentee mother and a father caught up in the legal system, it’s up to him to make ends meet at his family’s now-defunct farm. During a walk through the city center he has a chance encounter with Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a girl who he hasn’t seen since adolescence. The two hit it off and soon she’s asking him to feed her cat while she’s on vacation. Jong-su obliges, but when Hae-mi returns from her trip with a mysterious new friend named Ben (Steven Yuen), this uneasy love triangle begins to wrangle uncomfortable truths from all of its members.
Burning takes its time enveloping the viewer in the various regions of Korea, depicting the differences of culture in each. The farms, the city, the bougie Gangnam district — all are thoroughly built, as are the people within them, without bogging down the main narrative. In fact, it’s this differentiation of lifestyles which causes a lot of the tension between our main trio. Yet, that’s hardly what the film is about. There’s not much happening by way of cultural commentary so much as it’s a way to take the internal character building of the source material and making it cinematic. I haven’t read Murakami’s story, but my assumption is that we get some sort of inner monologue from at least one character. In the absence of such a thing (as is the nature of cinema unwilling to lean on voiceover) it becomes important to build the characters through observable phenomenon.
The leisurely pace does not betray the tension. Each scene affords new reasons for the viewer to be drawn in, wondering what has happened and where it is all headed (I am being purposefully vague for your sake, dear reader). Moments of surrealism punctuate the arid color palette, bringing cinematic flair to what, in the absence of a plot such as this one, would be a window into a mundane existence, while the score, by Mowg (I Saw the Devil) blends plucky melodies with droning, tragic tones specific to every moment. Burning was in competition for Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, a title which was granted to another film featured at PFF, Shoplifters.