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Review: Burning (Lee Chang Dong)

Yoo Ah In and Jun Jong Seo in Burning

My favourite kind of movie mystery: the movie itself is the mystery, its various twists and teases all to engender a level of viewer engagement that won't be sated until it has solved the unsolvable, figured out that which is designed to never be figured out at all. Lee Chang Dong's Burning operates exquisitely from whichever angle you choose to approach - look close enough and you'll find the clues, closer still and you'll find the answers, even closer still and you'll be thrown entirely off course. Whatever kind of movie mystery you want it to be, it can be just that, but above and beyond all else it is an impossible movie mystery, one constructed for the twisted thrill of throwing its audience off course as soon as they think they've gotten one over it. And why should it make sense, or satisfy the viewer's urge to wrap everything up? Why shouldn't it exist forever as fantasy, as a piece of aloof, untouchable art? After all, it is only that - fantasy / fiction, art as untouchable as the pixels of light through which we consume it.

That exquisite operation is so slick, it initially makes Burning appear almost a simple prospect, suspiciously simple. Such is Lee's skill, and that of his cast, there's not a scene that passes without the chance of portentous inference, tidbits gleaned here and there with the potential to become clues, though to what? A mystery unfurls eventually, though precisely what the mystery is remains itself mysterious, until you begin to wonder if it hadn't practically started and stopped unfurling mere moments into the movie. This is marvellously done, like a symphony of separate parts that (mostly) cohere with sumptuous consonance, yet whose individual elements are perfectly compelling in their own right. One can tune out Burning's every other harmony and focus on its function on a sole narrative and thematic plain, and find it perfectly enjoyable, though to do so would be to deny oneself the bracing beauty of its structural complexity.

Lee and co-writer Oh Jung Mi have created a movie whose narrative becomes its structure, and can essentially be read as such from the very start. It's an audacious work informed by a uniquely cinematic ingenuity, and it's filled with exceptional work from cast and crew. Blessed is the performer tasked with developing characters so richly-drawn, yet their task is far from easy - all of Burning's leads render their performances in a state of subdued volatility, ready to tip either gently or violently one way or the other, yet ever within reasonable remit for each character. Intensity tempered, simmering rather than burning, and terrific work all around. Burning is also technically sound, with judicious edits letting beautiful compositions do their job over a delicate soundscape and occasional, atmospheric score. Everyone involved seems to be working at the very top of their game, thus Burning is unequivocally at the very top of its game, and one of the very best movies of 2018.

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