With an extraordinarily high score of 3.8 in Screen’s poll of critics from around the world, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning has broken the record set by Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (3.7) in 2016. Premiering in competition at Cannes and now a frontrunner for the Palme d’Or to be awarded tomorrow night, Burning is an adaptation of a 1992 short story by Haruki Murakami inspired by William Faulkner’s similarly titled 1939 story “Barn Burning.”
Name-dropping Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, deliveryman Jonhsu (Yoo Ah-in) hopes to be a writer himself some day. He falls for a childhood friend, Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), who heads off to Africa and returns with Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich Gatsby-like figure who has taken up the odd hobby of burning down an abandoned greenhouse every couple of months.
Neatly summing up the tidal wave of critical praise, the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang finds in Burning “a character study that morphs, with masterly patience, subtlety and nary a single wasted minute, into a teasing mystery and eventually a full-blown thriller. To reveal more would ruin the story’s slow-building pleasures, which are less about the haunting final destination than the subtle, razor-sharp microcurrents of class rage, family-inherited pain, everyday ennui and youthful despair that build in scene after scene, even when nothing more seems to be happening than a simple or not-so-simple conversation.”
For all its universal appeal, Burning is also very much a film of the moment, as Bilge Ebiri emphasizes in the Village Voice. “Trump blares on TV sets, the North Korean border is often in view, ominous flocks of birds keep blasting through the background, and the slow, rolling tension among the characters feels like it’s headed toward an outsize release. And an apocalypse of sorts does come—but not at all in the manner that I expected.”
Noting that it’s been eight years since Lee’s last feature, the “sublimely moving” Poetry, Jessica Kiang, writing for Sight & Sound, admires the “absolute precision of craft” in Burning, “from Hong Kyung-pyo’s unerring camera placement to Kim Da-won’s stunningly variegated and cleverly deployed score,” all illuminating “a trio of performances that are little short of miraculous.”