Are You Curious? Designing the Poster for Burning

We spoke to the team at AllCity about their poster design for Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, as enigmatic a film as we’ve seen in years.


In Burning, Yoo Ah-in plays Jong-su, a directionless young man who loses himself in a hopeless love triangle; spellbound by his childhood friend, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong‑seo), and completely unnerved by his romantic rival, the mysterious Ben, played by an icy Steven Yeun. When Hae-mi goes missing, with no sign of reason or crime, Jong-su starts to suspect that Ben may be responsible and begins an obsessive search to find her.

Adapted from a short story of almost the same name, Barn Burning, by the celebrated Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, Lee Chang-Dong’s Korean thriller matches the author’s transient depiction of the quotidian, the poetry of his observations, and gives it all an everlasting chill.

When trying to create a poster that captures the essence of a particularly mysterious film, the best thing to do is make like a detective and return to the scene of the crime: Murakami. And that’s just what the film’s distributor, Thunderbird Releasing, did. They approached the team at AllCity, the design house who worked on the campaign for Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood some years ago. With Norwegian Wood “we established a strong graphic simplicity with lots of negative space,” says AllCity, “we wanted channel some of this into Burning.” AllCity were to be the perfect people to tackle the artwork for this complex and enigmatic film.

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Burning may take its lead from Murakami’s short story, but that’s a red herring, and to look there for clues will send even the sharpest private eye down the wrong back alley. The film is, in genre terms, a thriller, but Lee Chang-dong has no interest in placing you on the edge of your seat, and the poster should, of course, reflect that tone. “We wanted to do Burning in a more subtle way than to show one of the greenhouses on fire,” say AllCity, who have resisted the urge to place a greenhouse aflame on their poster, striking though that might have been.

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“We felt too much fire may make it look way more like a high octane thriller.” It’s a good call. The final poster design evokes something far closer to the experience of watching the film, which renders audiences in a state of intense, inquisitive observation, more like a participant in the investigation than someone who is just along for the ride. “The sparks and the burnt paper effect on the typography were enough.”

While the film nods to a cinema past, evoking a nostalgia for the noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s not least through its soundtrack, which features Miles Davis’ Générique (originally composed for Louis Malles’ Lift to the Scaffold), the film is not a period piece. “Like Murakami’s literature, it can belong to any era, but at the same time it captures the spirit of the time,” say AllCity and, indeed, the political landscape of Burning is entirely contemporary, and entirely crucial to its story, its characters, and its mystery. “We discussed the idea of class divide and the characters’ lives floating in a sea of uncertainty,” a sentiment that drives much of the film’s narrative.

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So how do you visualise those themes in a poster? “We talked about the characters’ shared frustration because of something missing in their lives, visualised by the white circle cut out,” say AllCity. “The sparks from the embers of the fire within Ben affects all of the characters. Shins faded character and the burnt typography are further symbols to add to the mystery.”

On the face of things, a synopsis for Burning is liable to make the film sound like a pulpy private-eye mystery about a missing woman. There’s a great deal more smouldering beneath the flames, but the mystery is not a bad place to start. The audience is enlisted to help Jong-su, the amateur sleuth investigating the disappearance of Hae-mi, so the first thing the poster needs to do, is ask: are you curious enough? “We felt like detectives,” say AllCity, “we wanted the viewer of the image to feel like they were piecing together a number of hidden messages.”

So… are you curious?

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Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is playing now in Curzon cinemas.

Thanks to Thunderbird Releasing and AllCity