Burning ★★★★

"Mysterious people who are young and rich. There are so many Gatsbys in Korea."

I'm... kind of at a complete loss on this one?

On one hand, I've read some reviews for Lee Chang-dong's Burning that spoke to the movie I think I saw: a slow-burning (heh) masterpiece of tension and mystery, a sort of 2018 South Korean answer to Vertigo.

On the other hand, I've read some other reviews that that spoke to the movie I also think I saw: one with aimless pacing, vague observations about nature, and some pretty lousy writing for its lone female character.

I'm a bit torn between the two. I wanted to love it so badly, and I did love parts of it. Steven Yeun makes for an effectively frightening figure, whether or not he actually did any of the awful things our protagonist suspects he did. Lee directs the whole thing with a fascinating sense of restraint, building tension out of very little actual plot, while Hong Kyung-pyo's cinematography of chilly blues capture the overwhelming sense of loneliness beautifully.

And what a lonely film this is. Yoo Ah-in's performance highlights this very well. Being alone feels wrong, but being with people feels even worse. Even the one person he feels like he's fallen in love with, Shin Hae-mi (played by a charming Jeon Jong-seo, in her film debut), he's stilted: their kisses are awkward, their sex polite and cold, their conversation almost nonexistent. It's almost oppressively melancholy.

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Jong-su cannot seem to trust anything or anyone. The startling finale becomes inevitable. The performances from the actors are all convincing and compelling, especially Yeun. The film looks great. There are moments of genuine intrigue and tension.

And yet I can't help feeling like I'm looking up at a film that everyone else loves while I'm stuck at the bottom of a well that may or may not exist in the first place.

It's one to think about.

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