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Directed by Lee Chang Dong
Starring Ah-In Yoo, Steven Yeun and Jong-seo Jeon
F.I.V.E. star rating:
F. Form: 4.5 / 5 [style, structure, technique]
I. Impression: 5 / 5 [impact, relevance, provocation]
V. Vision: 5 / 5 [audacity, innovation, perspective]
E. Experience: 4.5 / 5 [enjoyment, engagement, delight]
TOTAL: 95 / 100
When Haemi (Jong-seo Yun) comes up to Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) on the street he doesn’t recognise her. They knew each other when they were little and she mentions she’s had plastic surgery done. They smoke together in an alleyway and catch up and then grab a meal. Afterwards, she takes him back to her tiny studio apartment to have sex. She says her north-facing apartment doesn’t get much direct light, there’s only a particular time of day when a ray of light from the sun is briefly reflected from a nearby tower and passes through her windows. As quickly as it comes, it disappears. As they are having sex Jongsu looks up to see this very light cast on a wall and we watch it come and go in real time. Lee Chang-Dong’s BURNING is full of moments like these when everything goes quiet and there’s a hint of a revelation but it doesn’t crystallise until later, if ever.
We recognise these moments in life when it seems like the universe is telling us something. That something greater is sending us a message but these are rare and very few movies are adept at expressing this transcendence. In the aforementioned scene, the shot is held long enough to realise what it is we’re looking at, the light slowly gets brighter, does a subtle dance, and we are held captive like moths to a flame. Jongsu is an aspiring fiction writer and this shot is from his point of view so it feels like we are being let in to his writerly mind where a small observation of a tiny thing expands into something bigger than the thing itself. What this ray of light means to him could be a number of things and we couldn’t really know nor does it matter. What matters is that it is somehow meaningful to him.
Later, she tells him that she is going away on a trip to Africa for a few weeks and if he could look after her cat. He agrees but he never sees the cat. Only an empty food bowl and a used cat litter indicates that something was there. When she comes back she’s not alone. Jongsu is introduced to Ben whom Haemi met on the trip. The premise almost feels like a prank. Boy meets girl, both have sex, girl goes away and comes back with a new boy in tow. It sounds like a practical joke, a cruel one, and I felt a real sense of worry for Jongsu, who’s naivety seems to be tested and played with. When he hangs out with the pair it’s as if they are performing for him, performing what I’m not sure, but that adds to the suspicion and uneasiness.
They meet at a cafe where Ben performs a magic trick. He says he’s going to pull out a stone from Haemi’s heart. A pebble materialises in his hand. They laugh but he confesses he pulled the pebble from a garden outside. It’s cute and a little embarrassing but somehow it also feels like a warning sign. That someone is being tricked in a grander way. Again, this is shot from Jongsu’s point of view and at this point he’s mostly quiet, only observing the two. Jongsu is put under a spell by Ben. He’s everything he isn’t. He’s wealthy and confident. His affluence remains a mystery. What exactly he does for a living is never disclosed but this makes him even more captivating for Jongsu who at one point likens Ben to Gatsby. They are both men with power and riches who keep their secrets closely contained.
What these secrets are is hinted at when Ben confesses to Jongsu about his secret little hobby: burning greenhouses. Ben explains that this act lets him be multiple persons at once - the destroyer and the creator - and he’s drawn to it as a release. He speaks about it like it’s an addiction (“I do it at least every two months”) and it tells us something about him, the desire to possess and be in control of something, but it also tells us something about affluent people in general. That to be rich means someone else is poor. A fire keeps someone warm at the same time that it turns something else to a useless pile of ash.
This movie is vague about what it’s really about, then when mulled over it becomes clear and in that moment it gets hazy once more, the fog thickens, and you reach out to hold on to something only to realise you can’t see your hand any longer. If you are expecting for answers to be given by the end, for narrative revelations to tie everything up, then this movie may not be for you. If you expect the other kind of revelation, the kind that comes from an unknowable source, a cosmic provocation that brings with it more questions, then you are sure to find something sublime in this enigmatic film. I should also point out that bafflement is a perfectly fine and in some cases, beautiful reaction to art. BURNING is a special kind of film that takes in meaning and interpretation and sets it aflame leaving only smoke and ashes. You can’t make anything new without destroying something first.
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Dir. Samuel Maoz
The box step of the foxtrot moves the dancer so they end up in the same place they started with. Front step, together, right step, together, back step, together, left step, together and repeat. It is a simultaneous metaphor for the cyclical nature of war, the unyielding Israeli conflict, and an in-movie reference to the NATO alphabetic representation of the letter F. A soldier dances the foxtrot for his comrade as they both man a border gate along with two other soldiers. Like the dance, they are moving in the same routine and they are all bored to death. But this is not where it begins.
The film begins with a woman collapsing on the floor as she opens the door to her home. At first the camera focuses on her face and we don’t see why she’s reacting the way she does but the two Israeli soldiers in uniform who appear then make it clear that this is a message of death. Her son, one of the aforementioned group of soldiers, has been killed during his service. The way the camera looks at this scene - meticulous, attentive, unhurried - is evidence that this is a film guided by a director who understands visual storytelling. The camera faces the exact place of tension as if it’s a homing device directed towards dramatic heat.
This is a story of a grieving family and a group of stultified soldiers living through the endless Israeli conflict. From the opening scene, it leads us to believe that the story will progress in a particular way but as this three-part narrative unfolds, it comes with surprises large and small. While the subject matter sounds depressing there is intermittent liveliness throughout. There are dance interludes, absurd humour and even an animated sequence. It’s the kind of movie that keeps you paying attention from its sheer inventiveness and wit.
Like the steps of the foxtrot, this film is diagrammatic in its structure and visual language. You can trace an imaginary line or, as it turns out, a series of circles that links its thematic explorations, visual motifs and camera movements back to itself. When the family receive the news of their loved one’s death the camera draws a spiral around the room, moving as if it’s as disorientated by the news as the characters. Later, we see that the soldier’s quarters inside a shipping container is sinking on one side from the soft mud. Cinematographer Giora Bejach shoots a wide shot of this interior with the subjects leaning down on one side. Another line is drawn. Even the very ground they stand on can no longer hold itself.
The shot compositions aren’t the only elements you can draw lines with. There are visual references that circle back to itself. One of those motifs is a wandering camel. We see it first as it aimlessly walks through the border where the soldiers are and later play a key role in the plot’s development. It is both a dramatic catalyst, a punchline and, again, a metaphor for the film’s themes. If you’ve read some of my previous writing, you would know I don’t care much for metaphorical interpretations in films but the way director Samuel Maoz employs them here is so organic that it’s hard to separate them from the overall effectiveness of this brutally direct dark comedy. It exudes directorial confidence, is full of inventive formal approaches and certainly a cinematic gem worthy of attention. Even though it has the same rhythm and structure of a foxtrot, even when we end up at the same place by the end, it feels like something has changed.
This film is part of the 2018 Sydney Film Festival lineup on June 6-17.
Go to sff.org.au for more details.
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