The Burning is a Japanese family drama, with the twist thrown in that the two sisters around whom the story revolves like to set fires. The film is sedately paced, but more interested in providing interesting visual tableaux and insinuating the viewer into the relationship between the two sisters than in storyline or plot. This will make for slow going for those who prefer strong character beats and a structured plot.
The Burning focuses on twin sisters Minako and Hinako, played by real life siblings Rika and Mika Nakamura. Minako has been away since their father died in a fire thirteen years ago. She returns to visit her sister (who has been living with an uncle) after discovering that she has a fatal brain tumor. The two set a lot of fires when they were together as children, and Hinako has continued to set blazes while Minako has been away, seemingly as an expression of longing for her other half. Hinako declares at a number of points that she will continue to set fires as long as she is separated from her sister.
As stated above, The Burning is not plot-centric. It works very hard at setting mood and developing relationships. The story, such as it is, follows the twins as they rediscover each other after their long separation, eventually going on an extended road trip with the additional purpose of avoiding inconvenient discussions with the police. A couple of male figures dance around the periphery. Yamamoto is Hinako's schoolmate and only friend, and Ikezawa is an injured kick boxer that the girls share a minibus with for a time. These two help to move the story along and give the twins convenient third parties to talk to but have little to do with the core of the film.
The Burning is beautifully shot, with powerful visual language. Director Kenta Hayashida loves slow tracking shots that allow the viewer to gather in details of texture and landscape, as well as dramatically framed wide shots that look almost frozen in time. Fire constantly comes up as a visual image, both as a menace and a comfort. The film also has compelling if subdued performances (clearly a deliberate directorial choice) and can often be intriguing. On the negative side, however, not much happens and the point of it all is a bit ephemeral and difficult to grasp. It is worth a viewing, if only to appreciate the lazy visual elegance, but don't expect to come out the other end with a five point outline of the director's message. Set aside a quiet afternoon to watch, and some time afterward to think about it.
The video is 16:9 anamorphic widescreen and generally looks good. Bright whites tend to wash out a bit, but other than that colors are smooth and clear, if a bit muted. The lines are crisp and the image is clear, apart from a very few night scenes in which the shadows overwhelm the action briefly.
The sound is Dolby 2 channel and effective. Not a lot of effort has been made to utilize the sound, but it does an adequate job with the subtle needs of the film. English subtitles are available, but no other languages. Audio is in Japanese with no alternate language track.
There are a few, not terribly interesting extras on the disc. They are:
Making of The Burning
Much like the film itself, this making of mini-doc is mostly visual and experiential. It consists primarily of behind the scenes footage of the filming, with no explanatory dialogue. While there are subtitles translating some printed Japanese text, there are none for the few brief spoken words of director Kenta Hayashida. The feature does note briefly that Hayashida passed away just as the film was initially being released. Other than that, not much information is imparted.
This is a fairly standard trailer for the film, although it does try to present it as more of a psychological thriller than a straight drama.
Several trailers or text descriptions are provided for releases from Pathfinder Home Entertainment.
The Burning is visually quite arresting, well made, with fine actors and an interesting concept. The lack of a cohesive narrative structure on which to display the characters and ambiguous or difficult to perceive thematic elements, while not making it any less intriguing, prevent it from becoming a truly great film. The lack of understanding on the part of this reviewer may be a byproduct of his purely occidental point of view, or quite possibly an intended goal of the director. Regardless, with little conflict or emotional investment, The Burning is more of a quiet meditation than a gripping drama. Enjoy it for its strengths and simple beauty, but don't expect to be deeply moved.