This review was originally published as part of our London Film Festival coverage on 19/10/2018.
It’s not often that you watch a two-and-a-half-hour film and think, “that could have been longer.” Such is the power of Burning, that it could last eight hours and it would still be compelling, a dark, devastating mystery that offers up so many subtle clues that it’s hard not to turn to your neighbour and start whispering theories.
Lee Chang-Dong’s film is, roughly, a two-parter. The first half concerns itself with a soul-flatteningly sad study of longing and isolation, with a kind of quiet existential despair permeating every moment, while the altogether stranger latter section is an atmospheric thriller. It’s less a whodunit than a wasitdun, and both halves are utterly enthralling.
In the world of Burning, reality shifts on a dime. These changes are always subtle, but people and objects seem to slip through cracks in the universe until you can’t trust anything. The alienation of the modern world is present in every frame, with the exception of one perfect moment of peace, which our frustrating, reluctant hero Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) can’t help but ruin.
Yoo is absolutely fantastic in the lead, as is Jong-seo Jeon as the unstable Hae-mi, the woman caught in the middle of a jealous game between Jong-su and the high-flying Ben (Steven Yeun). This is the best Yeun’s ever been, mysterious, arrogant, and silkily terrifying. The games of cat and mouse he plays with Jong-su as the pair descend deeper into paranoia and darkness are exhilarating and unbelievably tense.
Breaking Burning down into a single review is a difficult task. This is a magisterial work that needs days to process. In one particularly ominous encounter, Ben tells Jong-su that to feel alive you have to find something that resonates like bass in your very bones. Burning does exactly that.
CAST: Ah-In Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jeon
DIRECTOR: Lee Chang-Dong
WRITERS: Lee Chang-Dong, Jungmi Oh (screenplay), Haruki Murakami (based on the short story ‘Barn Burning’ by)
SYNOPSIS: Jong-su, a part-time worker, bumps into Hae-mi, who used to live in the same neighborhood. Hae-mi asks him to look after her cat while she’s on a trip to Africa. When Hae-mi comes back, she introduces Ben, a mysterious guy she met in Africa, to Jong-su. One day, Ben visits Jong-su with Hae-mi and confesses his own secret hobby.