Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
This week brings one of the year’s most critically lauded films, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, which opens at the Northwest Film Forum. If you can avoid knowing what the film is actually about (and I’m going to leave plot out of this brief appreciation), Burning unwinds with a tantalizing, sometimes mystifying, what-the-hell-is-this quality, at least until it eases into its central mystery. There is the ghostly spirit of Antonioni hovering over the scenario, but without ever making us feel that we are rooted in a South Korean milieu and experience.
As elusive as Burning can be, it’s an utterly compelling watch. Along with Lee’s touch with mise-en-scene (sometimes dreamlike, but sometimes very specific and pointed), the film is carried by the three actors who form its triangle: Ah-in Yoo as the slack-jawed, farm-bred fellow who says he wants to be a writer (a job he does not seem suited for, frankly), Steven Yeun as a worldly Mr. Cool, and Jong-seo Jun, in her film debut, as the young woman who enchants them.
Burning is Lee’s first feature since the 2010 film Poetry, a layoff that will, with any luck, not be repeated. Looking back to Poetry, I have my review handy, and see that some of the distinguishing aspects of that movie are also at play in Burning.
It’s quiet for almost its entire running time, but Poetry, by South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, gathers incredible power as it moves toward its devastating finish. It’s one of those movies you want people to know about, even if its appeal is difficult to describe.
On a basic level, the film is about a woman named Mija (Yun Jung-hee, in a tender performance) raising her grandson. She works as a caretaker to a stroke victim for a few hours a few times a week, and although she doesn’t have much money, she always makes the effort to look dignified and put-together. A terrible tragedy, with appalling overtones, touches Mija’s family. Her ability to deal with this issue is shadowed by the suspicion—confirmed by a doctor—that Mija’s memory lapses are the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Where does the poetry come in? Mija enrolls in a writing class, and she determines to finish just one poem by the end of the course. But where to start? How do you begin writing a poem about a flower when you’ve never done it before?
Without getting precious about it, Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine) provides a kind of road map for finding that poetry. Not by showing us pretty things—as the wise man Steve Martin once observed about comedy, poetry is not pretty—but by showing us the world straight-on, beautiful things as well as unpleasant. By some mysterious alchemy, what we see on the screen takes on a poetic murmur: a bus ride out of town, badminton played under streetlamps at night, a sunlit classroom. The fact that we know Mija will lose these images one day as she deteriorates adds to the sense of how valuable these things seem.
And yet, awful issues must be dealt with. While the film trains you to pay attention to small beauties, we will also notice cruelty, such as the callousness of others involved in the tragedy, or the way people tend to stop noticing Mija even while she is still talking to them.
And through all of this, while trying to solve the serious problem at hand, Mija continues to struggle with how to write that poem. Where is this “poetic inspiration” you always hear about? Why isn’t anything magically popping into her head?
By the time we reach the end of the film, we can observe that life has been teaching her how to write the poem all along. Writing a poem, as Mija’s instructor says, is a matter of learning how to truly see. So is watching a fine movie such as this.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.