By Casey Campbell
Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 film adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” is an uneasy meditation on relationships. At least, that’s what I took from it on my initial viewing. For a two-and-a-half hour long movie, Burning defies expectations both in terms of pace and satisfaction. The film slowly but surely allows itself to unravel in your psyche, offering new bizarre pieces to an ever expanding puzzle of compelling human drama. If you’re in the mood for a sweepingly gorgeous genre-bender, Burning is available now on Netflix.
The movie is best viewed when in complete ignorance of the plot and genres. So, SPOILERS, though light they may be. All I can say is that Burning is about a simple guy back home from college to look after his dad’s house. He happens to reconnect with an old friend from his childhood and agrees to watch her cat while she’s away on a trip to Africa. She returns with a friend, only it’s tough to really make out his motivations.
I’m not familiar with Lee Chang-dong’s filmography, as this is the first of his films that I’ve seen. But if this is what he can do with an adaptation, I’d love to see more of his work. One of the coolest things about Burning, other than the stellar acting, is how supremely cinematic it all is. “Show don’t tell,” is one of the central doctrines of film, and Chang-dong allows the camera to take in as many nuanced reactions he can from the talented trio at the forefront without needing much dialogue. A lot can be understood and inferred from the faces of the performers.
Rather than have a character explain some kind of hard truth about their father, the scene cuts to a courthouse where the father is being arraigned. It’s this kind of sparse storytelling that makes the movie feel so real. You, as an audience member, learn about the characters based on what they do and it’s very physical. No character is perfect, and they’re all shown as flawed humans. That adds to the intrigue and really keeps you on your toes and engaged.
Basically, Burning is a very worthwhile two-and-a-half hours and it’s something that’s better when knowing nothing about it. The cinematography is always beautiful and a nice storytelling device at points. The tone and music is strange in a compelling way. The acting is top notch. Give it a go if you’re willing to let down your guard for a bit. I hope it’s worth it in the end, because I definitely thought it was.