Directed by Lee Chang-dong.
Starring Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo, and Steven Yeun.
Deliveryman Jong-su is out on a job when he runs into Hae-mi, a girl who once lived in his neighbourhood. She asks if he’d mind looking after her cat while she’s away on a trip to Africa. On her return she introduces Jong-su to an enigmatic young man named Ben who she met during her trip. And one day Ben tells Jong-su about his most unusual hobby.
Lee Chang-dong’s (Poetry) first film in eight years is most definitely worth the wait, a haunting mystery drama that slowly burrows its way under the viewer’s skin and is likely to remain there for days. Bar a few indulgent excesses, Burning lithely contorts a seemingly conventional premise into something refreshingly, daringly unique.
Indeed, the face of this story is one we’ve seen hundreds of times before in Hollywood cinema; a young man, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), is reunited with his childhood crush Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), but after she returns from a trip to Africa, she brings with her a handsome, charming new boyfriend, Ben (Steven Yeun), making Jong-su feel very much the third wheel.
Lee deserves an enormous amount of credit here for not playing his hand too early or feeling pressure to tip audiences off as to what his film really is. An amorphous project in many respects, Burning begins as a simple romantic character drama, but over the course of its 148-minute run-time, the seemingly innocent love triangle begins to teeter towards something more sinister and unsettling.
It’d be rude to say anything more about the plot, so let’s leave it there. Lee’s terse, unsentimental directorial approach helps keep the tone ambiguous until he wants to commit to the “turn” later on, but what really makes the movie is its trio of outstanding naturalistic performances.
Yoo Ah-in’s nervy performance will feel almost uncomfortably authentic to any man who’s ever been an awkward teenager, and Yoo does a marvellous job complimenting the subtlety of Lee’s direction with an equally restrained, even guarded performance.
Jeon’s Hae-mi is, meanwhile, his effervescent counter-point, a thoroughly charming young woman around who the movie’s central mystery resides. Again, Lee keeps key details in the shadows, yet rather than frustrate, it only heightens the intrigue. But when we speak of intrigue, nobody in Burning will muster greater viewer attention than The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun, whose carefully calibrated turn here completes the trifecta of uncertainty; we know his Ben is cool and confident, but does this mask a horrifying darkness hiding below the surface?
Each of the three leads is lingered on with wonderful long takes which emphasise their loaded facial expressions, inviting the audience to interpret and analyse every blank stare, pained laugh and sad glance across the horizon. Rather than unfurl the nature of the movie’s mystery through expository dialogue or intense incident, many of the film’s most revelatory moments are simple, quiet close-ups of a character’s face while the cogs are clearly turning.
And even with all this heaviness, Burning isn’t a strictly miserable or aggressively self-serious film; there is humour found in surprising places and some wonderfully authentic awkwardness – especially an early sex scene. It’s only at around the half-way mark that the more uneasy aspects of the plot begin their slow-creep, quite possibly sneaking right up on the viewer as they do so. Quite honestly, I’d recommend you read as little as possible about the movie’s narrative before watching it; I did the same, and the experience benefited immeasurably from it.
This is also a ravishingly-produced film from a technical perspective; Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography is beautiful both in its more uniform moments and especially its showier sequences, most memorably a gorgeous scene in which a topless Hae-mi dances before the setting sun.
The lensing is equally effective at building a more sinister tenor later in the movie, taking fantastic advantage of the sprawling urban locale surrounding Jong-su’s home for all it’s worth. This is all accentuated by a punchy musical score from Mowg, whose string and drum motifs punctuate the drama without overpowering it.
Burning is a political film to some extent, making numerous reference to rampant unemployment in South Korea, the credit card debt epidemic afflicting young people in the country and the blatant fact that Jong-su lives right next to the North Korean border. You can argue that director Lee arguably plays things a little too broad with a lingering image of Donald Trump visible on a TV screen for a moment, but at least it’s a one-off that’s forgotten fairly easily.
Undeniably holding the film back from grander plaudits, however, is its epic yet not entirely justified run-time. Though lengthy dialogue-free sections of the movie help build atmosphere and suspense, a subplot involving Jong-su’s father going on trial for a violent attack could basically be cut entirely without much affecting the end result. The film would be all the better with 20-ish minutes cleaved away, but the overwhelming power of Lee’s vision is stunted only so much by his lack of editorial restraint.
Burning is an evocative and difficult-to-shake film that overcomes its bloated run-time with a trio of immaculate performances.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.