Be warned, this movie will mess with your head. A tense psychological drama that creeps up on you in much the same way the boiling water catches out the clueless frog; by the time you fully grasp what is happening, you’ve already been burned. An adaptation from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Burning is ambiguous, riveting and, no doubt for some, quite confounding, but it is an utterly mesmerising and highly accomplished work from writer/director Lee Chang-dong who, among other changes, has relocated the story from Japan to his native Korea. This Gatsby-ish love triangle plays out in Paju, a city close to the North Korean border and is told from the point-of-view of aspiring author Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a quiet loner whose life seems to take an upward trajectory when he reconnects with Shin Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo) an old classmate working as a spruiker/promotions model.
It is not long after the rekindling of their friendship that Hae-mi announces she is going to Africa on holiday, securing an assurance from Jong-su that he will feed her cat while she is away. After a longer than intended absence after being stuck in Nairobi airport for three days, Hae-mi returns with the rich, confident and enigmatic Ben (Steven Yuen) in tow. A strange three-way friendship develops and the tension mounts as allegiances ebb and flow until Ben and Hae-mi visit Jong-su at his family farm situated so close to the northern border that propaganda messages ring out across the paddocks. Jong-su has been forced to return home to tend the animals while his volatile father is in prison as a result of a legal dispute stemming from an act of violence, with the court proceedings offering some insight into the Korean legal system.
As things take a mysterious turn when Hai-mi ceases all communication, Jong-su finds himself playing detective with Ben firmly in his sights. The performances from all three actors are compelling and there will be myriad times when you will find yourself muttering WTF to yourself as this bizarre, baffling, brooding mystery plays out. As a thriller, Burning substitutes action and thrills with foreboding and dread; extended sequences without dialogue and hypnotic cinematography courtesy of Hong Kyung-pyo. An examination of social class is very much at the forefront of the events, with each of the characters representing a particular reality for young people in Korea.
In her first ever role, Jong-seo is mesmerising as the young woman who lures the two men into her orbit while Yuen, following an extended run on TV’s Walking Dead, is building a solid body of work following appearances in Okja and Sorry to Bother You. Meanwhile, Ah-in shows why he is one of the most acclaimed young Korean actors of the moment, somehow making Jong-su a sympathetic character despite some strange behaviours that prevent him from ever being particularly likeable. There are myriad small mysteries within the larger puzzle (such as Heimi’s invisible cat and Ben’s brag about a predilection for pyromania) and, whilst the ending proves cathartic for one character, the audience is afforded no such luxury and some may find it frustrating that the biggest mystery of all is never resolved. Chang-dong denies us the satisfaction of understanding what exactly has transpired and that is one of many great things about this film. Yes it is puzzling, but Burning is also intelligent and ultimately quite spellbinding in its soporific stylings and slow-burn storytelling.