Classics of the New Millennium: "Burning" (2018) with Justin Chang

Classics of the New Millennium: "Burning" (2018) with Justin Chang

I’m so glad my friend and critical colleague Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s “Fresh Air” chose South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s Burning as his pick for a great film of the 21st century. Justin brings to the discussion a deep knowledge of Lee’s filmography — I regret to say I’ve only seen 2010’s “Poetry,” which is remarkable — and a festival interview with the filmmaker under his belt. More to the point, he’s able to get under the skin of a movie that resists easy synopsis and interpretation.

Five years after its release in 2018, “Burning” is already edging toward the timeless: A powerfully ambiguous tale of love, eros, innocence, and simmering violence that has the bones of a thriller but the air of a cautionary existential fable. Based on a Haruki Murakami short story called “Barn Burning,” the movie departs from its source in critical ways, notably in more clearly hinting at what one of its three main characters — the sophisticated and possibly psychopathic Ben, as played (brilliantly) by Steven Yuen (“Minari,” “Nope”) — is actually up to. (Whatever it is, it ain’t burning greenhouses.)

In my 2018 Boston Globe review of the film, I wrote “‘Burning’ …  is a beautifully cryptic slow burner that lingers long in the senses. It plays like one of Patricia Highsmith’s unsettling power-play suspense tales, but with the talented Mr. Ripley off to one side while his victim (or one of them) assumes center stage. … There are moments that defy categorization but that land with a mysterious, expanding hush. They can be as small as the smile and barely perceptible wink Ben gives Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) in a party scene, inviting him in on a joke the younger man doesn’t quite get. They can be as luxuriant and lengthy as a sequence at sunset at Jong-su’s farm, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) impulsively singing and dancing in the nude and then Ben confessing to awful doings as the light almost unnoticably fades away. The awful doings may in fact be a metaphor for something even more unspeakable. … “Burning” could be about metaphor, actually — about the way people make things stand in for other things, ideas for ideas, emotions for emotions, until the only way to cut through the abstraction is with obsession, or violence.

The film, if you haven’t seen it or would like to revisit it before or after listening to the podcast, is streaming on the Peacock Network and Kanopy and available for rent on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere. Justin’s and my conversation is also available to watch on YouTube, with a few “Burning” scene clips added. I hope you enjoy the discussion.

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