This is a camping wood pile with flames burning against a dark background used to represent the title of the movie "Burning".
Josh Garza

There are no distractions in Burning, nothing that would help to temper the undulation of panic and discomfort it animates.

If you’ve ever read any of Haruki Murakami’s writing, then you’ll know that he has a preference for surrealism. Something about his storytelling style makes you feel as though you’re in a dream state and so, sometimes it’s difficult to discern reality from fantasy and whether a switch in scenery means something or if it’s just another trick. Burning, a 2018 remake of Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, which is drawn from William Faulkner‘s own version of the story, feels just as bizarre as all Murakami’s other work. Yet somehow, creatives Jungmi Oh and Chang-dong Lee, do a fantastic job at bringing his story to life. In fact, you can even say that the movie is so Murakami.

The drama mystery won the 2018 Grand Bell Award for best film and for good reason; it is unnerving. The story follows Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-In), a wanna-be writer and his reacquaintance with his old friend Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun). He’s on a gig job when she recognizes him but he doesn’t even notice who she is at first until she insists that they know each other. “Don’t you remember me?” she asks. “We lived in the same town when we were young.” Of course, he doesn’t, she had plastic surgery, and also, they probably weren’t close back then but Hae-mi demands his attention so, he entertains her. There’s also the fact that she’s pretty now. Intriguingly, as their friendship develops, they switch roles. He desires her attention and time but she always remains at a distance. But there’s something about her that keeps drawing him to her. Hae-mi is eccentric, impressionable, and a free spirit who lives within each moment, acting on whatever impulse strikes her (even bad ideas), but he’s stoic, controlled, and skeptical. But for whatever reason, he’s open to her.

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Hae-mi’s weirdness enchants him. For instance, while they’re drinking together, she randomly starts making hand motions and calls it pantomiming. Then she says she’s going to Africa and then quickly changes the subject back to her pantomiming. You see, she’s the kind of natures that require patience and openness to be understood but somehow, Jong-su’s detached attitude complements her well. So, when she asks him to watch over her cat while she’s on her trip, he easily agrees. He never actually sees the cat the entire time that he visits her apartment but since she convinces him that it does exist, he follows her instruction. It’s this loyal and straightforward personality that ultimately helps him to discern that something is wrong when she returns from Africa with her new boyfriend Ben (Steven Yeun). Maybe it’s jealousy or the fact that Ben sees them as playthings, but everything about him irks Jong-su. “He’s the Great Gatsby,” he eventually sneers at Hae-mi adding, “why do you think he’s seeing you? Have you thought about it?” Hae-mi is imperceptive to Jong-su’s hint but no matter, he believes that he’s alert to Ben tricks. Even so, in time Ben is able to bring a hushed chaos to Jong-su’s ordinary life, one that is already made dysfunctional with his dad’s latest crisis. Basically, you could say that by the time Ben shows his true character, Jong-su has already had enough.

Burning has an eerie stillness about it. There is hardly any music to underscore scenes and also, hardly any creative cinematic shots beyond those that help to illustrate the story. There are no distractions in Burning, nothing that would help to temper the undulation of panic and discomfort it animates. So, the hyper focused nature of the film is in every aspect of the story. Jong-su and Hae-mi are dressed in worn out clothing, do menial jobs and have money troubles just like anyone, which is the point. It could be anyone. Someone could easily come in contact with a Ben without realizing it and that’s what’s so disturbing about the film.

Its effects are most pronounced when you watch it with a blank slate. Still, there’s a lot about Burning that is difficult to understand. For instance, why does Jong-su keep getting phone calls with no one on the line? Also, what do Ben’s friends know about him? But I suppose, the magic of the film is probably in its unanswered questions because it keeps you puzzled long after watching it which invites reflection and maybe a revisit. Like any other abstract from Murakami, it’s slow-burning in pace and persistent in keeping audiences in wait of the larger vision of the project.Actually, the viewing experience is reminiscent of that of the hit American crime film A Simple Plan, in tone and style. They are both stylistically crafty with their use of delicacy and insinuations but they’re quietly violent. In the end, you’re left torn about whether to root for Jong-su or not, but it almost feels like the decision has already been made for you because in Burning, every line is crossed. Nothing is really made clear to you.  

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