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‘Burning’ tackles Murakami and Korea’s dual soul


Some of the most intriguing films I've seen in recent years hail from Korea. The most recent is "Burning," which I saw through Amazon Prime. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Cinema and literature are inextricably linked. One uses words to create visuals, while the other – generally speaking – uses visuals to reflect what’s typically communicated through words.

The Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong is a master at combining the two art forms. In his 2010 film “Poetry,” he explores the life of an elderly woman who, while coming to grips with a gruesome crime involving a relative, tries to deal with her own developing dementia by writing … well, poetry.

Something of the same holds true in his new film, “Burning,” which is available through video-on-demand. Throughout “Burning,” which runs nearly two and a half hours, director and co-writer Lee makes literary references. One of three principal characters wants to write a novel. His own favorite writer is William Faulkner, an author whom one of the other characters then checks out. At least once someone is compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby.

And the whole of Lee’s screenplay borrows heavily from the short story “Barn Burning” by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.

Our trio of characters comprises Jong-su, Hae-mi and Ben, all of whom live in or near Korea’s capital city of Seoul. Jong-su is the wannabe writer, a college graduate who does temp jobs and – because of legal problems involving his father – has been forced to take over dad’s farm in rural Paju, so close to the North Korean border that you can hear Communist propaganda being spouted over loudspeakers.

Hae-mi is the young woman, a one-time childhood acquaintance of his, whom he meets by chance on the street, and who – on a seeming whim – has asked him to feed her cat while she dashes off to Africa. And the third is Ben, a handsome, self-composed and decidedly mysterious guy whom Hae-mi – to Jong-su’s consternation – brings back with her

Jong-su doesn’t know what to make of Ben, especially during one night when the three get together at his father’s farm, smoke some pot and – while Jong-su admits to having had a sad childhood – Ben admits that he likes to burn down greenhouses. One every couple of months, he says. Just when he feel the urge. In fact, he has another one picked out. And it’s very near Jong-su’s house.

Then someone disappears, someone else goes in search and … well, if that isn’t enough to get you interested, not much else will.

Except maybe this: Lee is a true cineaste, one who knows how to frame a shot to full effect, whether that involves a character miming the peeling of a tangerine, a slow sweep of the Korean countryside or a languorous sequence involving a sunset striptease. And he knows how to borrow effectively from other masters, at least in terms of mood and theme, whether they be Francois Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni or – literarily – Patricia Highsmith.

I don’t pretend to understand everything about “Burning” as a lot of the story necessarily gets lost in translation. But it’s not hard to see the disaffection of Lee’s characters, caught up in a culture – not to mention a country – that is divided both in geography and in its societal soul.

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