In one of the years’ most acclaimed films and South Korea’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2019 Academy Awards, director Lee Chang-dong has crafted a psychological tale of all-consuming jealousy. Based on the short-story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami, the film is certified fresh on site Rotten Tomatoes and is available on a Blu-Ray combo-pack and DVD from WellGo USA on March 5.
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Living in his own world, introverted Jong-su (Ah In-yoo) becomes more frustrated with his life, which is then further complicated when he meets up with the free-spirited Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo) and the two grow romantically attached to each other. When the wealthy and sophisticated Ben (Steven Yuen, from ‘The Walking Dead’) enters their lives after the girl returns from a trip to Africa, their lives are further thrown into a twist when she disappears without a trace one day. As Jongsu tries to trail her, Ben’s mysterious hobby comes to light which begins to cast doubt on everyone involved in their lives as to what happened to their friend, and soon leads into a harrowing experience for all involved.
Overall, this was just flat-out boring with plenty of fine technical qualities. The major factor in the film is the running time, which is just way too overlong and has no real purpose being so. All the early setups involving their burgeoning romance work out fine, but the other subplots are just excruciating and drag this out to absurd degrees. The exploits with trying to get his father off the hook for his criminal offense just don’t mean anything interesting is going on, the slowly-burgeoning three-way romance when she returns offers up the usually typical interactions that just scream bland love triangle and it’s way too late into the film before anything happens as a result. That it’s barely an hour and a half before we realize anything’s gone wrong due to all these inconsequential storylines and meeting up with everybody else, really drags this out.
Likewise, equally problematic is the wholly ambiguous nature of the central mystery. The fact that Hae-mi has disappeared without a trace, shutting off her forms of communication, stopped going to work and checking in on her friends, should result in a police investigation into what’s going on. Instead, Jong-su decides to play amateur detective for the whole of the movie, resulting in his getting nowhere fast because of the culture difference between him and Ben. That he’s right to suspect Ben means that almost all of the encounters are stymied by Ben’s wealth and access to a world he can’t get to on his own, leaving Jong-su to have to pull back and wait for a different time to investigate. Most importantly, the screenplay by Oh Jung-mi that manages to get somewhat interesting in the second half with these investigations, makes the cardinal error of remaining ambiguous about the fate of everyone, leaving you in a state of confusion more than anything.
Most of the accolades heaped at this film are decidedly based rightfully around the technical accomplishments. Director Lee Chang-dong whips out a plethora of stellar tactics here to create an intriguing mystery made all the more impressive due to these technical qualities. Ably assisted by Hong Kyung-
While the technical accomplishments of the film are what really holds this one up, overall it’s a slow, mostly dull mystery that never gets resolved and is way too long for its own good. For those that appreciate those elements and are willing to play along with its slow-burn approach, ‘Burning’ will be highly rewarding, but those looking for a different kind of film will be