Just as Hollywood often trades in narrative certainties and soothing resolutions, Burning is built on ambiguity. Inspired by Haruki Murakami’s story Barn Burning, South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong’s first film since 2010’s Poetry takes thriller movie tropes (no spoilers) and dials the pace and thrills right down, replacing them with foreboding and dread. Elliptical and strange, it is more cryptic than the toughest crossword, but stick with it: the rewards are manifold.
For its first half hour or so, Burning proffers an engaging, nuanced romance. Wannabe writer Jongsu (Yoo) bumps into old school friend Haemi (Jun) selling lottery tickets on the street. The pair have a lightning courtship — her tangerine-eating mime during dinner is super charming — and are soon having sex in her cramped apartment, Jongsu promising to feed Haemi’s cat Boil (the name becomes important later) while she is on a trip to Africa. It’s here that the enigmas and twists that become Burning’s stock-in-trade start to rack up. Firstly, during Haemi’s absence, Jongsu never actually sees Boil, although the food is being eaten and kitty litter messed with. Secondly, she returns from the Kalahari with a new beau in tow — Ben (Steven Yeun), a Korean Jay Gatsby, confident and out for fun. Jongsu understandably is knocked for six.
Engrossing and unpredictable.
This triangular relationship evolves into an engrossing and unpredictable psychological thriller. Syringed into the story are reflections on class conflicts, sexual jealousy, dealing with your past (Jongsu is from a fractured family) and a study in how introspection can build into feelings of injustice and retribution. Chang-dong keeps everything on a slow boil (not the cat), reaching a poetic creepiness in long stretches without dialogue. The craft is hypnotic and exquisite (step forward cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo), but the overall effect is unnerving.
As a hero, Jonsu is an introverted, not-easy-to-warm-to hero but Yoo suggests oceans of longing before turning into 2019’s most shambolic detective. Casting the charismatic Yeun is a masterstroke; his star status on The Walking Dead means Ben instantly lauds it over Jonsu without the actor doing anything — he takes the stereotypical rich, romantic suitor and invests him with vulnerability beneath the bravado. But it is Jun who is the breakout here, so effervescent the film noticeably dims when she is not on screen. The film’s standout scene sees Jongsu and Ben share a joint as Haemi strips to the waist and dances to Miles Davis’ jazzy score for Elevator To The Gallows, not for the men’s pleasure but lost in her own reverie. It’s a bewitching turn that lights up the film. Just don’t expect any illumination on its mysteries.