Burning (Beoning)


That which reminds us of things we can’t bear to look at must sometimes be burned.

(2018) Mystery (Well Go USA) Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jun, Soo-kyung Kim, Seung-ho Choi, Seong-kun Mun, Bok-gi Min, Soo-Jeong Lee, Hye-ra Ban, Mi-Kyung Cha, Bong-ryeon Lee, Wonhyeong Jang, Seok-chan Jeon, Joong-ok Lee, Ja-Yeon Ok. Directed by Chang-dong Lee

 

Human relationships are by their very nature complex, particularly when sexuality is part of the equation. Sometimes we find someone who we can’t believe could possibly be interested in us; other times we see things in someone that they don’t see in themselves. All the while, our desires burn brightly within us.

Jong-su Lee (Yoo) is a country bumpkin living in Seoul. Hailing from the farming community of Paju, near the DMZ that borders North and South Korea – so close in fact that the propaganda broadcasts from the North can clearly be heard in Paju – Jong-su has managed to get himself an education and yearns to be a writer, admiring American authors like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

To make ends meet while he writes his novel, Jong-su works as a delivery boy. One day he accidentally encounters Hae-mi Shin (Jun) who grew up with him in Paju although he scarcely remembers her. Where he is colorless, she is vibrant; where he is taciturn she is outgoing and she is energetic where he is lethargic. She is everything he’s not and everything he wants. To his surprise they strike up a friendship which turns into something more. She is getting ready to go on a previously planned trip to Africa and needs him to watch her pet cat; he agrees.

While she is gone, he haunts her apartment, missing her presence and her sexual energy. There is some evidence of a cat – a litter box that fills with poop, a bowl that he fills with food which is empty when he comes back – however he never actually sees the cat whom she names Boil on account of that she found him in a boiler room.

Jong-su has had to move back to Paju in the meantime – his father has been arrested for assaulting a government official and eventually is convicted and sent to prison. Jong-su must take care of the family farm. When he receives a phone call from Hae-mi that she needs to pick her up at the airport, he is overjoyed – until she materializes with a new boyfriend, the wealthy Ben (Yeun) in tow. Ben is a handsome, charming, and charismatic sort and Jong-su is certainly aware that Ben is more attractive as a boyfriend in every way conceivable. Ben seems to enjoy Jong-su’s company and often invites Jong-su to parties and on dinner dates with him and Hae-mi.

Outwardly Jong-su seems okay with this arrangement but inwardly he is seething and when he boils over and yells at Hae-mi, she breaks off communication with him. After a few days of frantic calling, Jong-su begins to realize that nobody has seen Hae-mi since then. He begins to get an uneasy feeling, particularly when Ben confesses while high that he likes to burn down abandoned greenhouses for kicks. Suddenly Jong-su is beginning to wonder if there isn’t more to Ben than meets the eye.

Chang-dong Lee is considered one of South Korea’s most gifted and respected directors. His films tend to be deeply layered, very complex and sublimely nuanced. In many ways, Burning is his most accessible work to date. Still, there is as with all his works much more than meets the eye which is saying something given the often breathtaking cinematography.

The triangle at the forefront of the movie has some delicious performances. Yoo has the rubber-faced expression of a comedian but rarely varies it beyond befuddlement and bewilderment. He is a child-man in a fast-paced world of naked consumerism; he is the Nick Carraway to Ben’s Jay Gatsby (the film even references the book directly), fascinated and yet envious. Jong-su becomes obsessed with Ben, first as Hae-mi’s new paramour and later in a different way after the girl’s disappearance.

Yeun, who most American viewers will remember as the good-hearted Glen from The Walking Dead has a very different role here. He is part of the one-percent and has all the arrogance that you would expect from those used to getting everything they want. He also can be cruel, sometimes inadvertently but one has to wonder if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. Ben is, after all, a very bright young man. Yeun does a bang-up job here.

Jun leaves the most indelible impression. Hae-mi is both desperately lonely and wonderfully outgoing. She is very sexual but very naive at the same time. She is a hot mess from a personal standpoint and she breaks the heart of Jong-su who in their last scene together throws it back in her face. She is an enigma, never more so when she disappears and one wonders if she, like her cat, was not real to begin with.

The movie takes a definite turn after Hae-mi goes missing; it goes from a romantic Dramedy to a mystery which seems to be the crux of the film. When a friend who had previously seen the movie asked me what I thought of it, I responded “It’s like getting two movies for the price of one” and so it is but this isn’t such a wide turn that the audience is left with whiplash. Rather, it is an organic change that allows the viewer to go along for the ride without getting too uncomfortable.

This was South Korea’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscars this year and while it didn’t make the shortlist – despite being a favorite to do so – it certainly deserved to do so. There is a purity to this work that transcends cultural lines; I do believe that one can feel the truth in it regardless if you are Korean, American or from anywhere else. Some truths are universal after all.

REASONS TO GO: It’s like getting two films for the price of one. The filmmakers wisely leave a lot of aspects to the imagination. The audience is never 100% sure of what took place in the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The first third of the film is a bit of a slog.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity as well as sex and nudity and some shocking violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to be directed by Chang-dong Lee since Shi in 2010.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girl on the Train
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Dolphin Kick

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Veteran (Beterang)


Being a Korean cop film, some serious asskicking is guaranteed to ensue.

Being a Korean cop film, some serious asskicking is guaranteed to ensue.

(2015) Cop Action Comedy (CJ EntertainmentJeong-min Hwang, Ah In Yoo, Hae-jin Yoo, Dai-su Oh, Man-sik Jeong, Woong-in Jeong, Yoon-ju Jang, Shi-hoo Kim, Kyung Jin, In-yeong Yu, Kil-kang Ahn, Ho-jin Chun, Zoltán Durkó, Eung-soo Kim, Dong-seok Ma, Su-dam Park, Jake Patchett, Young-chang Song. Directed by Seung-wan Ryoo

Being a cop means understanding the difference between justice and closure. One doesn’t necessarily ensure the other. Sometimes you don’t get either. It’s very rare that you get both.

Detective Do-cheol Seo (Hwang) is a bit cocky and something of a hot shot. Bad guys rarely make it to the station without a few bumps, bruises or broken bones when he arrests them. Because he is so good at taking down Seoul’s more violent element, his superiors tend to look the other way, even after breaking up a violent car thief ring, infiltrating them with the help of trucker Bae (W.I. Jeong) who brings his little boy along, mainly because he can’t afford to have anyone watch him while his wife and he work. Bae and Seo develop a friendship during the long truck ride.

Celebrating his success that night, Detective Seo runs into Tae-oh Jo (A.I. Yoo), the son of a billionaire industrialist and a high-ranking executive in his company.  Seo immediately knows that the spoiled Jo is bad news, sadistic and arrogant. Seo senses that Jo is going to be trouble but he can’t really arrest him for his suspicions.

Shortly after that Seo’s friend attempts suicide by jumping off the office building owned by Jo’s company. Seo smells a rat and despite the smooth denials by Jo’s assistant and fellow executive Sang-Moo Choi (H.J. Yoo) who is the serpent to Jo’s shark. Seo decides to investigate the suspicious “suicide” attempt. However the company has influential friends in high places and Seo finds himself frustrated at every turn, sometimes by cops directly on the take.

In the meantime Jo is getting more and more reckless and doing more and more cocaine. Through smooth Choi he attempts to bribe Seo’s wife who turns it down flat and berates her husband for putting her into that position. In the meantime, Jo begins to get sloppy and make mistakes and is obliged to leave the country but not before throwing himself one last big blowout party but that quickly disintegrates and leads to a bloody confrontation between Jo and Seo.

There’s enough humor here to warrant calling it a comedy although the synopsis is more that of a hard bitten police procedural. The humor may be a little over-the-top for American audiences who tend to prefer their over-the-top humor to be more profane. One of the running jokes is the petite police woman (Jang) who kicks everybody’s ass.

This was a major hit in Asia this past summer and is just now making the rounds at a select few film festivals and will likely be hitting more film festivals in the spring. I hope so; this is one of those movies that is absolutely entertaining. There’s plenty of well-choreographed action – and Hwang turns out to be an extremely skilled martial artist.

But as good as Hwang is, Hae-jin Yoo is even better. A matinee idol in Korea, he plays the psychotic villain here and the baby-faced actor is absolutely perfect, delivering one of the best villainous performances of the year. He can be charming and charismatic but out of left field he’ll do something despicable and sadistic, forcing Bae to get into a Fight Club-style brawl in his office – in front of his own son, who sobs while his father is pummeled into a bloody pulp by his manager.

The story isn’t anything to write home about; the commentaries on corporate culture in Korea probably are going to fly right over the head of the average American audience, and we have seen plenty of lone cop fighting insurmountable corruption movies from both sides of the Pacific. Still, this one is so much better than most, with terrific performances, really good action sequences and some genuinely funny moments. This ain’t art but it’s pure entertainment, which is an art in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Kinetic action sequences. One of the nastiest villains ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the humor might be a bit broad for American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, some profanity and drug use as well as a hint of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite only having been released this past August in South Korea, the movie has already become one of the top ten all-time box office champs in that country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story