"I'm the cunt you married!"
Loosely based on Haruki Murakami's short story Barn Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is a bewildering examination of youthful loneliness, isolation and raises interesting query about one’s fatuous existence. Burning explores our resentment towards life’s lack of providing concrete answers as to why things happen the way they do. In the end, we are merely a collection of memory and it’s necessary to question the accountability of perspective, something we don’t do often enough. In the opening scene, Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) meets the sexy street dancer Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), who immediately claims they grew up together. Jongsu doesn’t recognize her and doesn’t seem to remember any of the few other memories she continues to apprise him either. Her character greatly underscores the film’s ambiguity, accountability of perspective and the ever growing mysteries of life.
Jongsu aspires to be a writer but coming from a poor rural background it becomes clear he doesn’t quite know what exactly to write about. Which isn’t such a surprise as he evidently lacks any sort of adventurous life experience to write about. He is searching for meaning and for a fortuitous fleeting moment, Heami provides a warm welcoming hand away from his isolated existence. He immediately falls for her and in turn becomes blinded. Love’s apparent ability to blind people is easily probable when it’s the very thing one has yearned for their entire life. At some point Haemi talks about the philosophical meaning of Great Hunger which is about one’s craving for meaning in life. Haemi is Jongsu’s craving and he in turn becomes blinded by the bubble of pure bliss Haemi has provided for him.
Eventually Haemi asks Jongsu if he would mind looking after her cat while she’s away on a trip to Africa. Jongsu agrees and while he never actually catches a glimpse of the cat, he continues to take care of it. When Haemi comes back to South-Korea, she asks Jongsu to pick her up. When he arrives at the airport, Haemi is accompanied by a rich flamboyant Korean guy whom she apparently met in Kenya. Ben (Steven Yeun) is everything Jongsu is not, he perfectly underscores the quintessential socio-economic contrast between both men. Jongsu seemingly grows weaker, more disdainful and is befuddled in envy. Eventually Ben invites them both for dinner at his place and takes a special interest in Jongsu’s aspiration of becoming a writer. For a moment they indulge themselves in literature when suddenly Ben points out that protagonists are merely there to thrill us and to inevitably elicit enough fire to fuel us alongside their story. Perhaps it’s a not so subtle nod to Burning’s odd choice of protagonist.
Then one day Haemi goes missing and it embarks Jongu’s obsessive journey to finding out what happened to her. He subsequently suspects Ben and decided to shadow him for a while, in hope to figure him out. However, Burning intention isn’t to provide its audience with concrete answers, Haemi’s disappearance is partly left unexplained, if not heavily hinted at. The film is rather swamped with interesting and pivotal questions about existence. Questions the audience will most likely ponder on for many days afterwards.
In many ways Burning is similar to Under the Silver Lake. Both films deal with the disappearance of a central character and the protagonist’s amateurish search for answers. The immersion of the main character’s paranoia and ever growing frustration functions as a means of social commentary. They are highly ambiguous and ambitious films. But while Sam’s (played by Andrew Garfield) search is rooted in boredom, Jongsu’s search is far more complex. This is probably due to their heavily apparent socio-economic difference. It’s also interesting to note that unlike Under the Silver Lake, Burning is aware of its misogyny. Haemi isn’t Jongsu’s dazzling MPDG because there’s room for her character to be contextualized.
Burning is a thriller without many thrills but due to its meticulous pacing and smooth camerawork it evokes the right amount of subtle tension. Yeun’s performance is absolutely unsettling to watch unfold and it’s surely among his finest performance to date. The film ends at an engrossing, explosive note with an utterly mesmerizing end shot. But much like Under the Silver Lake, there are many ways to interpret the final few moments and it’s almost a necessity to rewatch the film to be able to fully comprehend it. It certainly is a masterpiece and among 2018’s best films thus far.
Under the silver lake
Nowadays everyone seems to be obsessed with conspiracy theories— subliminal messages in songs, the dark side of the entertainment industry, ritual killings, you name it and the internet will surely provide you with hundreds of extensive videos on how the entertainment industry exactly functions and of course, who’s really behind it. Whether you believe any of those theories or not, it’s still fascinating.
In David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, Sam (Andrew Garfield) stumbles his way through the rabbit hole that is Hollywood. Introduced to us by a subtle homage to Rear Window, Sam appears to be your typical friendly, socially adaptable guy. But beneath the surface he’s eminently superficial, self-righteous and overly misogynistic. He lives in the always vibrant Los Angeles but doesn’t seem to be participating in any of its glory. He doesn’t have a job, he spends his day playing retro video games and peeping on his topless neighbour. His monotonous life changes however, when he meets the enigmatic Sarah (Riley Keough). They get high, they talk, they kiss and end the night on a promising note. But soon thereafter, our dazzling MPDG vanishes into thin air without leaving any trace whatsoever.
Sam becomes obsessed with trying to find out a pattern, any clue that might lead to an answer to Sarah’s sudden disappearance. We become immersed in a world with a dog killer on the loose, a secret club under the Forever Hollywood cemetery, an avid conspiracy theorist and a billionaire that might secretly pull all the strings above our heads. The film successfully plays into typical noir tensions, it’s unpredictable and highly engaging. Much like the main protagonist, the audience is perpetually left in the dark.
We get absorbed in Sam’s paranoia, his obsession. While being highly engaging, the plot feels jumbly. Mitchell’s vision is unclear and the plot never delves into something meaningful to grasp onto. By the end of its run time, the audience is still left in the dark. Mitchell cleverly used Sam’s paranoia to play into some classic tropes through his self-absorbed psyche. The oftentimes exaggerated male gaze hinges to a very misogynistic depiction of women. Surely it’s easy to grant Mitchell the benefit of the doubt and say those are deliberate as the film is quite heavy on its commentary on pop culture. To some degree, self-awareness in film has become a necessity. However, it’s also a very cheap getaway to excuse misogyny in favor of so called social commentary. Especially when it comes to ambiguous films.
Under the Silver Lake certainly evokes ambiguous vibes and has already been compared to Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. There are several ways to read this film and surely people will dig through it for months to come. The key elements are in premise quite interesting. The film however, doesn’t try to pose any real questions but rather tends to abandon them just as quickly as they are posed. In turn Under the Silver Lake is half-baked and lacks consistency. It’s also a tad too long. While Mitchell’s vision remains rather unclear, his work is ambitious and in any case, doesn’t really seem to take itself very serious. If A24 still intends to push back the release date to December then Under the Silver Lake could greatly benefit and elevate from some (much needed) editing.