Oscars: South Korea Fails to Get First Foreign-Language Nom With 'Burning'

The Academy did not include Lee Chang-dong's intellectual thriller among the final five contenders.

Film lovers in South Korea had been hoping that Tuesday would see Burning, the critically acclaimed thriller from Lee Chang-dong, land the country its first-ever Oscar nomination in the best foreign-language film category. But it wasn't meant to be. 

The news of Burning's inclusion on the foreign-language shortlist had created buzz in the local media and film industries. But even though the movie failed to make the final five on Tuesday, industry folks and film lovers were standing proud.

"That a South Korean title was included in the shortlist itself was a noteworthy event," says film critic Kim Si-moo. "The meticulous direction and cinematography; deep, heart-wrenching message; and fine acting bring together an incredibly well-crafted piece of work. That said, however, the competition was very tough against other such films as Shoplifters and Roma. So we can find solace in the fact that it was a meaningful shortlist. It is also noteworthy that more Asian cinema is being noted by the Academy."

Lee's first film in eight years, Burning competed for the Palme d'Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the critics' prize. Various other honors followed, including a runner-up finish for best film of the year at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (Roma took the top honor), and the film even made former President Barack Obama's list of favorite films of 2018.

"The Academy Awards, Cannes and other events, while prestigious and meaningful, are just awards in the end," says Nam Dong-chul, former editor-in-chief of Cine21 magazine and program director of the Busan International Film Festival. "Cinema is not like sports competitions where creators work toward earning a medal or establishing new records. Burning has already achieved big feats as it has often been quoted among the best films of 2018 by international critics."

Others said they are still optimistic that the country would get a foreign-language Oscar nomination sooner rather than later. "South Korean cinema has been widely recognized across the world, winning major awards at Cannes, Berlin and Venice, among other prestigious international events and awards. Of course, the Academy Awards has yet to spotlight South Korean films," says Kim Sin-seong, president of the Korean Journalist Association for Film. "I really hope we can save the rejoicing and applauding until a South Korean film actually wins an Oscar one day."

Burning stars Korean-American actor Steven Yeun (of Walking Dead fame), Korean A-lister Yoo Ah-in, and first-time actress Jeon Jong-seo in the story of a poor aspiring writer who becomes romantically involved with an old classmate, but things become complicated when he meets her new boyfriend, an affluent and mysterious older man.

THR in its review praised Burning as "a beautifully crafted film loaded with glancing insights and observations into an understated triangular relationship, one rife with subtle perceptions about class privilege, reverberating family legacies, creative confidence, self-invention, sexual jealousy, justice and revenge."