Review: Burning - Sydney Film Festival
WORDS BY FRED PRYCE
Let me start by saying this: Burning is an eerie transposition of all the sensations I felt reading the little Murakami that I have (particularly Norwegian Wood). Though I’m sure the feeling is universal, I find a certain numbness is created from isolation and existential dread – this terrifying thought that we are ultimately detached from our own lives, drifting from one moment of fleeting connection to the next.
Watching Burning is one of the most engrossing experiences I've ever had, but it worked on me slowly, overtaking me until I was completely swamped in this vague feeling of fear. Needless to say, the filmmaking is impeccable, dreamlike, confined and beautiful, and is responsible for creating an immersive viewpoint even during periods of stagnation or confusion. At first, I thought the main character was an odd choice for a protagonist, awkward and endlessly quiet as he is. I wasn't sure when it happened, but I suddenly understood that I shared so much with this character – more than I would care to admit. He is a writer from a poor rural background, without anything to write, the world is a mystery to him, and the only 'truth' he finds being a brief relationship with a woman from his childhood. An unforced, realistic sex scene is marked by a thin line of sunlight streaming through the window, one of the many examples of the film showing how our memory is influenced by such small, indelible moments. He becomes slightly obsessed with this warm idea of her, but can never truly know her, something that could verge into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory if the film didn't do such a good job documenting the ways men can view women and grounding the character’s perspective in context.
This is upended by the introduction of a rich and possibly sociopathic playboy, someone who doesn't have to work to live well, and may just be performing a very good impression of a human being. This character, who is everything the main protagonist isn't, and a living example of the dehumanizing effects of wealth, could be shown in obvious light, but the director never makes the relationship fully symbolic. That's partly down to the performances involved – all three are remarkable, with Steven Yeun effortlessly existing as the character Ben on a whole other level (he's utterly frightening) – and partly down to a finely tuned uncertainty emanating from every part of the story.
Ambiguity is everything in this movie, to the point where you're never really sure what sort of movie you're watching. It strays from one thing to another, a drama without structure. You don't know what's happening in the main character's head, yet that's what makes him so intensely relatable, at least for me. Because do we ever really know what we're thinking or feeling with certainty? When something happens to the woman he loves, he embarks on an amateurish quest for answers and starts tracking the playboy, a detective without an idea of what the case is. The tension builds so slowly and surely that you're never quite convinced it's even there, even when your gut is twisting into knots at the most minor of developments. It's a thriller without apparent thrills, a serial killer movie without a serial killer, filled with enigmatic ideas and motivations. The film indulges in oneobvious metaphor, a cat named 'Boil' that conspicuously remains hidden alongside the unease, until it finally appears and provides us with an answer. Or does it? When the story finally, inevitably boils over, there is no release. There is only the horrible, wrenching awareness that we will never know the answers.
But for all this ambiguity, this movie is still clearly about things. It's about alienation, whether created by capital or other people, and the simmering frustrations this alienation creates. It's about wealth disparity, the burdens of class and gender, the generational resentment we have for our parents. It's about how life is mysterious and unfair, and the meanings we use to try fill in the gaps of our understanding. In the end, we might not solve the mystery, but we know why we're desperate to find out in the first place.