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Burning Secrets

Shoplifters and Burning




In the gradual but somehow instantaneous acceleration of time, wherein it seems to expand and contract with no regard for our pleas and protestations, I have found my movie-nerdiness largely subsumed by what I'm told is "real life."

Going back to the VHS/DVD rental days, I would stage my weekends with a dozen hours of esoterica from around the world, exploring history and genre, taking in the "important" contributions to cinema along with the elevated trash I hold so dear. When Netflix hit the scene, it became an almost too convenient extension of the same impulse: As soon as I had a membership, I top-loaded my queue with 150 or so deep cuts, vital classics and rough-cut gems — stuff one is supposed to see. My Netflix queue become something of a totem, a symbolic demarcation of the sapping of psychic energy that so often attends "growing up." As the realities of full-time employment set in, the Fassbinders and Cocteaus and Powell & Pressburgers started to slide farther down the list, displaced by whatever contemporary, low-commitment entertainment happened to be of the moment. Concurrently, theaters began shying from limited-releases and fell into line with the tent-pole machine. Streaming became the norm but by then the emotional exhaustion of the day generally left room for short-attention entertainments that wouldn't overtax my already depleted reserves — serialized television, in other words.

It's a sad state of affairs I've been remiss in rectifying. And so I'm thankful to the kind proprietors of the refreshed and rejuvenated Minor Theater and of the Miniplex, where I had the opportunity to be challenged by Hirokazu Koreeda's Shoplifters and Chang-Dong Lee's Burning.

SHOPLIFTERS. Within the orchestrated chaos of contemporary Tokyo, the pack-of-strays Shibata family work together to stay together. Packed into grandmother Hatsue's (Kirin Kiki) too-small house are Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), ostensible dad and mom to teenaged Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) and pre-adolescent Shota (Jyo Kairi). Osamu works part-time as an unskilled laborer on building sites, Nobuyo in some sort of quasi-Dickensian laundry facility. Aki does her thing in a peep show booth. It's a struggle to keep everybody fed and clothed, and so Osamu has taken on Shota as an apprentice shoplifter. After a successful raid in the opening moments of the movie, the two come across a 5-year-old neighbor girl alone and cold and hungry in the dooryard of her house. Together they decide to take her home with them to get fed and warm. Soon enough, they've incorporated the little girl, who they've named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), into their family, despite the ongoing news coverage of her missing persons case. As days turn into months into seasons, we come to a sort of inchoate understanding that the Shibata household dynamic is more complicated than it may seem.

Koreeda, with whose work I am woefully inexperienced, sets out for and achieves a level of intimacy here with both story and character that are rarely even approached in contemporary cinema. With deceptively delicate camera work, he puts us deep inside the lives of the Shibotas while allowing them to reveal themselves. It's a masterful example of showing without telling, of editing both before and after the cameras have rolled. In a gradual, immersive transition, we learn what we need to about these characters; in a test of our preconceptions we learn that they are all hiding something and yet also being completely honest. That's the true achievement here, one that might be missed for lack of patience. Koreeda and his actors present a fiction that is suffused with the stuff of real life, the little crimes we all may or may not commit daily to make life livable, the lies that keep the truth intact. It's a remarkable and remarkably controlled work that, if perhaps too long, rewards the watching. R. 121M. MINOR.

BURNING. Had I not known this was adapted from the Haruki Murakami short story "Barn Burning" from his 1993 collection The Elephant Vanishes, I might not have identified it as such. But that is the beauty of an effective adaptation: It makes the written word something else and new, giving life to it as imagined by a reader who doesn't share the author's brain. But with Murakami in mind, I noticed elements of his style throughout. And while Lee's vision of the story has even more negative space, silence and darkness than I would usually attribute to the author, it is an all the more satisfying — if troubling — adaptation for it.

In the course of an unremarkable workday, Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) encounters a girl from his countryside childhood, Hae-Mi (Jong-seu Jun). She's cute and flirty, and they strike up a conversation. After a couple of dates, Jong-su is impossibly smitten and Hae-Mi is leaving the country. She asks him to take care of her cat while she vacations in Africa. All well and good, but when she returns, it's with a handsome, wealthy stranger named Ben (Steven Yeun). This is complicated enough to make Jong-su's life difficult, let alone the fact that he must tend the family farm while his angry father awaits trial on assault charges. But he also doesn't think Ben is quite what he seems and the majority of the movie is charged with a silent sense of doubt and dread that must inevitably find voice.

There are some exquisitely beautiful images within Burning but it is mostly defined by austere style and its internal approach to the story and its characters. The focus of the narrative is exceptionally narrow but we are offered only rare insights into the internal lives of the characters. In high Murakami fashion, absence and not knowing are defining characteristics, elevated here almost to horror-genre levels. While the movie is a at times almost unbearably slow to build, the climax offers a perfect, terrible, wordless payoff. NR. 148M. MINIPLEX.

— John J. Bennett

See showtimes at or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.


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