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MOVIES: (LFF 2018) Burning - Review

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Burning was one of my most anticipated films of the London Film Festival and it lived up to all the hype. Director Lee Chang-Dong may be well established especially on the festival circuit but this is my first exposure to his work, and I was left absolutely stunned by how brilliant this thriller is, keeping you in suspense and incredibly stressed especially in the second half of the film.

Mysterious and enigmatic, we follow the drama through the eyes of the unemployed Lee Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) who meets and falls in love with a girl named Haemi (Jun Jong-seo). They hit off and become friends, until Haemi decides to ask him to look after her cat while she’s away on a trip to Africa. But upon her return, Haemi brings with her a mysterious bachelor named Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich, Great Gatsby-type character who has a curious hobby.

It’s in the second act after Ben is introduced where the film really takes off and it makes the most out of all of the experience building up to it beforehand. At times superbly subtle, Burning may telegraph what it wants you to think is the direction that it’s going to go in before it pulls away the curtain and heads in a different direction entirely. There’s a key scene where once you watch it you’ll know that there is more to this movie than first appears, and thanks to its aversion to most contemporary tropes that you would expect from the description, it emerges as legitimately one of the best films of the year, having an almost Zodiac and Picnic at Hanging Rock-esque feeling to it.

There are so many layers that Burning has to offer. It is well drawn, intricate and beautifully directed. Its slow structure may be off-putting to some but it really helps the film, and although there is no immediate hint as to what the mystery can be, all the character-centric moments help make the payoff all the more rewarding as a result. You feel the jealousy that Jong-Su feels, and it really helps add depth from his character. I was just so impressed by how the film avoids convention, never outwardly telling the audience beyond subtle hints. It’s a perfect example as to why showing is nearly always better than telling.

The cinematography is gorgeous. Hong Kyung-pyo does his best to make the film look as stunning as possible and it’s one of the most visually stunning films of the year. Even if a shot is as simple as Jong-Su running through the fields or Ben standing near a reservoir on his own in the cold air, it looks breath-taking. It’s in moments like these where the film is at its strongest, quiet and impeccably calm.

There are no big grand-stand fight scenes or moments that the film draws upon for contrivance. Burning is about as subtle as it gets, and in the best kind of way possible. It will require patience, but patience is almost certainly going to be rewarded, and it's safe to say that In a year full of awesome films, Burning stands right up there as one of the best movies of the Festival and of the year. Unmissable.

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