Movie Review – Burning (Beoning)
This is the official submission from South Korea to the 91st Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 71st Cannes Film Festival where it premiered. It won the FIPRESCI Prize. It received eight nominations at the 13th Asian Film Awards, including Best Film. The film won with the National Board of Review. It’s up for a Spirit Award and a Critics Choice Award. According to Metacritic, it’s in the top-five of highest rated films. The likelihood is that it will be listed at this year’s Oscars.
One at first has to consider the title. There is talk of a literal burning, which as delivered in dialogue is rather nonsensical, as it’s not clear whether it’s meant to be nonsensical or not. There’s also a kind of metaphysical burning, the kind of burning that happens inside a man’s heart, his soul or his loins. It’s not necessarily the kind of burning that happens as a result of STD. Sometimes, it’s a burning in all three places.
This film focuses on a man experiencing such a sensation, possibly in all three places of his body. The film is a very interior one that concentrates on how that sensation affects him, affects his way of thinking and eventually his actions, which end up being a bit too on-the-nose, but who can blame writer-director Chang-dong Lee for wanting to carry out his possible metaphor to its logical conclusion. The only problem is that the conclusion takes too long to arrive. One begins to feel this film’s length, which is usually not a good thing. Some might see and accept that this film is a slow burn, or a film that deliberately takes its time and is methodical with its pacing in order to immerse the audience in the film’s subject. Some might say that it drags and indulges in its scores. I would belong to the latter category.
Ah-in Yoo stars as Jongsu Lee, a young man who has become infatuated with a girl named Haemi, played by Jung-seo Jun. He takes her out. He even has sex with her. Things change when she leaves for Africa and comes back with another man named Ben, played by Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead and Sorry to Bother You). It’s not totally clear what happened between Haemi and Ben, but Jongsu is no doubt suspicious and perhaps a bit jealous. When Haemi disappears again, Jongsu perhaps thinks that Ben did something to her.
What follows could be considered a psychological thriller. Given the slow burn pace though, that consideration drifts away. There aren’t any thrills until the last few minutes, but then the movie just ends. There is no reckoning of the actions in that last act. It builds to a moment of violence, which other filmmakers have done like Michael Haneke. However, the emotional resonance or whatever emotional truth was needed to sell that moment of violence wasn’t achieved for me. The moment of violence seemingly comes out of nowhere. It becomes a huge jump or leap that the film wants us to take, but I didn’t feel the film earned it.
When it comes to that methodical pace, what you get are lingering scenes. For example, a sex scene goes on for a long time. Now, the length in and of itself isn’t the problem. The length is presumably meant to help the whole thing feel immersive and awkward as real sex for introverted and inexperienced boys is supposed to be. Yet, the filmmaker keeps the camera pointed at a backpack on a shelf. Yes, it’s Jonsu’s point-of-view or his field-of-vision during intercourse, but it lingers for an eternity.
Similar shots in other scenes also linger longer than they feel they should. The point of those scenes are made long after the camera lingers, so it comes across as indulgence. The film in that regard could have been tightened up in the editing.
Not Rated but contains nudity and intense sexuality.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 28 mins.
Available on DVD and VOD on March 5.