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Burning (2018)

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Sara Newman
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Burning (2018)

Haruki Murakami is my favorite Asian writer, or at least the Asian writer whose work I am most familiar. I enjoyed reading his novels Norwegian Wood and After Dark as well as many of his short stories, so when it came time to watch a movie for the course, and I stumbled upon a movie based on one of his stories, I was excited to watch the 2018 movie, Burning. Although I’d never read "Barn Burning,” the story it’s based on, I was intrigued nonetheless. 

Like many of Murakami’s novels, Burning is told from the perspective of a young man and follows his attempts to make sense of a beautiful, but somewhat distant woman. In this case, the film is told from the perspective of a college-educated but minimally employed young man named Lee Jong-su who’s had to move from Seoul back to his family’s old farm in country. In the opening scene of the film, Lee Jong-su coincidentally reconnects with Shin Hae-mi, a girl he knew growing up. Lee Jong-su and Shin Hae-mi seemingly move from friendship to intimacy, but any romantic aspirations Lee Jong-su may have for their relationships are soon disrupted when Shin Hae-mi returns from a trip to Africa with a wealthy and mysterious boyfriend named Ben. Whereas Lee Jong-su had clearly admired Shin Hae-mi’s dreamy and eccentric nature, he seems both jealous of her relationship with Ben and skeptical about why Ben—a wealthy, sophisticated “Gatsby” figure—would be attracted to and want to date Shin Hae-mi. 

Shin Hae-mi’s fanciful desires and tendency of becoming overcome by emotion and starting to cry suddenly made her remind me a lot of the stereotypical “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” that was so popular in American cinema just a few years ago. Clearly Lee Jong-su is drawn to Shin Hae-mi’s excentricities and feels a great tenderness towards her, which eventually compells him to eventually admit (to Ben) that he's in love with her. These same qualitites that make him appreciate her, however, are things that makes him wary that Ben and his weathly friends in Gangham may view her as as provincial and entertaining rather than as their equal who's deserving of respect. 

Ultimately because of the length of the film and the adult content (one sex scene that appears early in the film and the mutliple masturbation scenes), it's unlikely that I would show this film in entirety to students. The slowly building tension and sense of unease that gradually drives the film towards its dramatic conclusion make it so that clips of the film could be used to teach about mood, motif, indirect characterization or the concept of the uncanny. One of the things that I found most striking about the film is how quiet it is; minimal dialouge appears in the film and neither background noise nor music fill much of the film's two and a half hours either. I don't know if the quietness of the film is a typical feature of Korean cinema or if it's part of this specific director's creative approach to building a sense of unease and suspense. 

Jennifer Jung-Kim
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Plot twist to consider

Thank you for your review! I was at a Q&A with the director, and he posed an interesting way of looking at this film -- that all the events had happened in Jong-su's imagination/novel. That made me completely rethink the plot.