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  Burning Nothing Is Real
Year: 2018
Director: Lee Chang-Dong
Stars: Ah-in Yoo, Jong-Seo Jun, Steven Yuen, Kim Soo-Kyung, Choi Seung-ho, Mun Seong-kun, Min Bok-gi, Lee Soo-Jeong, Ban Hye-ra, Cha Mi-Kyung, Lee Bong-ryeon
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Romance, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: What Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) wants to be is a writer, but it's all very well graduating from college thinking you know all about creative writing only to find in the real world there may be fewer people around who are interested in what you have to say than you anticipated. Taking a menial job to get by, he is making a delivery in the street one day when a girl who is advertising a raffle catches his eye, and she gives him a ticket. As luck would have it, he wins something, but it’s a lady's watch, no use to him - some use to the girl, however, and she strikes up a conversation to reveal they know each other. They grew up in the same area, though he might not recognise her as she has had surgery...

Cosmetic surgery, or so she says, which would alter the appearance, and indeed the truth, of what she was, if you wanted to take the procedures that far. Director and co-writer Lee Chang-Dong, adapting a Haruki Murakami short story, was seemingly most intrigued by what you can discern from the people around you, and how far what they present as the truth is what is really happening, which led to this extended musing over whether it is enough to accept your own version of fact, or whether you should take others into consideration before weighing up the positives and negatives. But who the hell has time to do that, right? Why not simply rely on whatever suspicions you are fostering?

This unwillingness to commit to either Lee's side of the facts or that of the other two characters gave rise to no small degree of frustration in some viewers of Burning, or Beoning as it was originally titled in South Korea, as Lee held his cards very close to his chest, making his ambiguity the point of the exercise. How can you trust anything in this world, would appear to be the lament, when everyone has their singular agendas, from the politicians to the person in the street, which are set in presenting a particular version of events to the wider society? This was a very twenty-first century piece in that the confusion the globe was feeling yet was reluctant to admit to was uppermost in the mood.

And confusion can lead to many emotions, not all of them good: how about fear, anger, jealousy, and any number of grievances that will never be settled by a level-headed discussion to extract the details, because nobody wanted to, they wanted knee jerk reactions and they wanted them now. There was a love triangle at the heart of all this heavy stuff, which saw Lee and the young woman, Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo) joined by her new friend, Ben (Steven Yuen really branching out from The Walking Dead). Ben is everything Lee is not, rich, successful, knows all the best people and full of wiles, and a gap of class opens up between them; Hae-mi has earlier seduced Lee when she invited him to flat sit for her to look after her cat while she is away in Africa, but when she returns with this prize of a rich and successful go-getter, it seems Lee will be discarded.

Yet that is not what happens, and to say things get complicated was something of an understatement. Are the characters' memories at fault when they speak comments and confidences that simply don't add up or stand up to scrutiny? Or has the shifting nature of the third millennium merely resulted in a situation where nobody knows anything of any great security and conviction, which results in us retreating into leisure time as escapism, or getting madder and madder about our uncertainties? Lee certainly comes across as increasingly unstable, but it was a mark of the film that we were aware we are not getting the whole picture, and someone else could be behaving irrationally, which like a domino effect topples the sanity, even the lives, of those around them. This was a long film, and be prepared to ruminate with possibly not enough reward, but there were scenes of beauty, of enormously sinister mystery, and disarming mundanity melded together as if Michelangelo Antonioni had somehow survived and moved to Korea; if you could not get wholly behind it, you may appreciate its tapestry of menace and sadness, its poker faced meditations on social injustice, misogyny, mendacious media, the lack of direction in the face of impending doom and more. Music by Mowg.

[Thunderbird's Blu-ray has a long featurette where the director is interviewed in translation to English, a little laboriously.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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