Burning ★★★★½

Minimalist in its execution and methodical in its pacing, Burning is fantastic example of how ambiguity is the best vehicle for nail-biting dread. Sometimes you don’t have to see past the surface to know what dwells beneath. For those willing to be patient and observant, this slow-burn (ha!) thriller contains multitudes.

Perhaps Burning strength is that it is a character drama first, and a psychological thriller second. It’s not often that a film like this runs for over two hours, and while I am generally against unnecessarily long runtimes, it works for Burning. For the first 60 to 90 minutes of this film, you may not even be sure what kind of movie you’re watching. It feels a bit like a romance film, but also a coming of age tale, but also a bit of a family drama. Yet, with each passing moment, the film carefully reveals character traits and background that make you feel more and more like something is a bit off. It slowly digs its way under your skin, until the tension is almost unbearable. In a sense, Burning feels like a cousin to the Beatles masterpiece “A Day in the Life”. As the crescendo builds, you squirm and say, “this doesn’t feel right.” Yet what makes this tension so palapable is how real it feels. Nothing in this film is over-sensationalized. There isn’t a single moment (even the shocking denouement) that feels out of place. This film is incredibly deliberate in its revelations, but also restrained in its shock, which makes it feel all the more real, like something that could happen to any of us. The restrained and unsensationalized direction of this film is what makes it so effective.

The creeping narrative is helped along by some excellent mise-en-scène, which keeps the film grounded. One of the first things any viewer will notice about this film is how absolutely gorgeous it looks. There’s a very visceral texture to the film, and there are multiple scenes so stunning that they will leave your mouth hanging open (particularly the sunset dance, and the morning jogs in the fog). In classic Bazinian fashion, Burning primarily depends on long, sometimes stationary, takes to truly envelop the viewer in the film creates. It wonderfully captures both the big city and the lonely countryside in a very tangible sense, and there is very little non-diegetic music, meaning the world feels real and lived in, and not a constructed fabrication.

Last, but certainly not least, the cast of this film is absolutely spectacular. You Ah-in and Steven Yeun both give tremendous performances. Ah-in comes across as perfectly sad, lonely, and vulnerable. While his character doesn’t vocally express much, the melancholy, somewhat vacant way he presents himself says everything. Conversely, Yeun plays a character who puts on a strong façade. He is undeniably charming (as Yeun always is) but something about his expression feels plastic, and just from the look on his eyes you can tell that he is a man who keeps his cards close to his chest. Without giving too much away, just know that the interaction between these two is what drives the core drama of this film.

There’s something undeniably literary about Burning. It’s packed with symbolism, poetic dialogue, and a winding narrative that snaps in the film’s final act. If you are at all a fan of literary-based thrillers (very similar to David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well as Gone Girl) then you owe it to yourself to see Burning. It is a film that breaks many of the conventions that have made many American thrillers feel stagnant in recent years.

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