Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Stars: Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, Jun Jong-seo.
South Korea’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Oscars and winner of the FIPRESCI critics’ prize at Cannes, Burning is a visually gorgeous but enigmatic and somewhat dull psychological thriller that will leave many wondering in the audience what the fuss is all about.
Introverted aspiring writer Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in, from Six Flying Dragons, etc) is an affable young man from a rural farming community who has recently graduated from university. While on a visit to the city he meets the free-spirited Haemi (newcomer Jeon Jong-seo in her film debut), a former school friend, who is selling raffle tickets on the street. They reconnect and he falls madly in love with her. Despite their contrasting personalities they click as a couple. When she leaves for a trip to Africa he promises to feed her pet cat Boil, so named because he was found in the boiler room of her apartment block.
But when Haemi returns from her trip she is accompanied by the handsome, sophisticated, urbane and wealthy playboy Ben (Steven Yeun, from The Walking Dead, etc), a confident sort who lives in an upscale area of the city. Lee is instantly jealous, but an uneasy three-way relationship develops. But then Haemi mysteriously vanishes and Lee, who is suspicious of Ben, begins to investigate. He learns of Ben’s secret obsession with burning greenhouses, which leads to a final confrontation between the pair.
This slow-burning, glacially paced and deliberately ambiguous mystery is the first film from Korean director Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, etc) in ten years. Burning is loosely based on the 18-page short story Barn Burning, written byrevered Japanese author Haruki Murakami (Norwegian Wood, etc) and published in the 1993 collection The Elephant Verses. However, Chang-dong and his co-writer Oh Jung-mi have stretched the thin material out with several subplots and narrative strands that ultimately go nowhere. This adds to the film’s overly generous and bloated running time of 148 minutes. However, the first hour of the film is all about establishing a particular mood. Chang-dong imbues the material with a slowly building sense of dread. His approach is deliberately elliptical and enigmatic, full of allusions and symbolism, and his pacing is measured. There is a lot of unspoken tension in the relationship between the three characters.
This shapes Burning into an unnerving and unsettling psychological thriller and character study that slowly builds to a shocking denouement. Burning deals with themes of class, sex, identity, the past, the clash of cultures, toxic masculinity, injustice and revenge. The film has been beautifully and atmospherically shot by cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (Snowpiercer, etc), whose widescreen lensing is quite lyrical. The film is gorgeous to look at, even if it is a little dull.
The three leads are all good, with Yuen trading on his natural sense of charm as the villain of the piece, and he brings an icy quality to his assured performance as the potentially cold-blooded psychopath. Ah-in is easy to like with his mix of naivety and vulnerability and makes for a sympathetic protagonist.