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.”
More from Geoff Andrew (Time Out, 4/5), Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 4/5), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 4/5), Pierce Conran (ScreenAnarchy), Ben Croll (TheWrap), Peter Debruge (Variety), Mónica Delgado (desistfilm), A. A. Dowd (A.V. Club, A-), Lawrence Garcia (Notebook), Tim Grierson (Screen), Eric Kohn (IndieWire, A-), Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter), Rory O’Connor (Film Stage, B+), Tim Robey (Telegraph, 5/5), Barbara Scharres (RogerEbert.com), and Tommaso Tocci (International Cinephile Society).
And Burning is among the films Nicolas Rapold, Justin Chang, Mara Gourd-Mercado, and Eric Hynes discuss on a recent episode on the Film Comment Podcast (40’03”).
Updates, 5/27: Noting that Burning is a hit in South Korea, Colin Marshall, writing for the blog at the Los Angeles Review of Books, adds that Lee has made the story “more Murakamiesque” than the original and “imbued Murakami’s observant disaffection with simmering, ultimately explosive anger.”
Dispatching to Filmmaker, Blake Williams finds that Burning “demonstrates a remarkable ability to never settle into any given form. It’s always developing, entangling itself into a deeper and darker abyss.”
Sam C. Mac, writing at the House Next Door, admires all three lead performances; in particular, though, “Yoo locates equal parts repressed pain and earnest longing in Jongsu, who suffered years of abuse by his now-incarcerated father, while Yeun, in his first leading Korean film role, offers an immaculate portrait of a psychopath.”
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