Burning

Burning ★★★★

Lee Joon-dong's Burning has a run-time of 148 minutes, for most of these minutes I was moderately compelled, and for some I was more so. The film switches gears a few times, taking its original mood, and applying more mystery and suspense. It never really abandons its tone, but molds it to fit new, darker colors. When it was over, I initially thought, "well...I liked that." Then I began to ponder further; I ran over the film in my mind, its running themes, the characters' decisions, and just how ambiguous it truly was. As I watched the film, I felt as though I knew where I stood with it. When it ended, that feeling didn't change. Then without warning, Burning didn't leave my mind the way I expected it too. It still hasn't. What does that mean?

I'm not entirely sure, but I'm impressed.

Burning is a deliberately paced, South Korean psychological drama brimming with enigmas. I don't just mean the mystery that kicks off the film's final hour, but the three main characters themselves, who are highly difficult to read. The narrative uses political and social structuring to frame said characters, allowing their personalities to reflect the way they live. Causing feelings of jealousy, advantage, and embarrassment to perhaps fuel motivations late in the film, motivations that puts them in less black and white terms than I initially thought. Not to mention there's a running motif of Schrödinger's Cat throughout the narrative, something I didn't quite pick up on as the story played out. The idea that what we're looking at is believed to be there, and yet impossible to confirm. Which is true? Which is metaphor? And what does it mean? These thoughts race in my mind as I sit hear typing this out. Burning won't be for everyone, but if you can find your way to its conclusion...think about it, and I believe you'll find much more.

Taking place in Paju, a South Korean province, we meet Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a hopeful writer working on a novel. To make ends meet, he's performing various delivery jobs; his home-life isn't the most glamorous. His mother left when he was very young; his only sister is married with kids; and his father, a bovine farmer, is about to be sent to jail for assault, causing Jong-su to have to tend to the lone calf at his father's farm. One day, he encounters Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood neighbor and classmate whom he does not remember at first. She explains that she's had plastic surgery, and is no longer ugly as he referred to her once when they were children. Eventually Hae-mi asks Jong-su a favor of watching her cat while she embarks on a trip to Africa for some sense of spiritual awakening. Before she departs the two have sex, leaving Jong-su practically infatuated with her. Weeks pass while she's away; he goes to feed her cat, which he never sees, though there's all evidence of it being there. When she returns, she's not alone.

Enter Ben (Steven Yeun), a young man she encountered at the airport on her trip. The two seem to have a shared bond of sorts, and Jong-su is immediately taken back, as Ben is everything he isn't. Ben takes the two out for food and drinks to expensive places, and invites them back to his lavish home via his Porsche. As for what he does for a living, Ben explains that he "has fun." Jong-su describes him as a "Gatsby" of which he believes there are too many in Korea. The three find themselves together once again at Jong-su's place, where Ben confesses something to Jong-su, this something along with another, and even more important development, fuels the film's final hour. I don't want to go into details, only to say that there are scenes of a chilling nature in this last act, and an overall feeling of dread and potential disaster. How you feel about them will entirely depend on if you can appreciate the slow-burn (not a pun) storytelling.

The film moves glacially slow in its first 90 minutes. Scenes in the first half hour involving Jong-su and Hae-mi are devoid of a particular normal energy you may be accustomed to. Once Ben enters the picture, the film picks up a bit because he's so much more intriguing, but it settles down once again. There's something odd beneath the surface to be sure, but the story is in no rush to take a look. I won't say that I got restless, but I can't deny that a slow moving story appears as such. Once the "twist," if you can call it that, happens in the final hour, things naturally take a detour in the plot, but the narrative remains on a familiar and unrushed course. Again, any of these issues that I had, or issues that you might, may become moot once the film ends and you have time to think on what you've seen. Or perhaps you'll just reside to being bored.

Regardless of your thoughts on the story, and its pacing, you should find the three lead performances excellent. Yoo Ah-in as Jong-su is a unique guide through this kind of film. He's awkward and shy, but not without a brewing anger underneath, haunted by his past and dismayed at his present, upset at the thought of losing a potential love in Hae-mi to a "better" man. Yoo Ah-in displays it all, while keeping him firmly in the possible role of unreliable narrator. Jeon Jong-seo as Hae-mi plays her as a naive young woman with a sunny disposition and tragic thoughts. She makes Hae-mi someone to care about, while also leaving an impression that suggests different outcomes for her character. The best of the three is Steven Yeun, known for his role as Glenn on The Walking Dead, Yeun washes away any thoughts of Glenn instantly, playing the antithesis to that character. Here he has a simmering confidence that gives way to perhaps more sinister motives, all the while remaining a mystery to the very end.

I haven't seen any of Lee Joon-dong's other films, but it's clear he knows what he's doing. Long takes that involve crowd control or even dancing at sunset find ways to evoke more than what's on the screen. The film isn't full of beautiful imagery, but it has some peppered throughout. It's triumph lies in its ability to be ambiguous in so many directions relative to its conclusion. And by being able to do that, it forces you to look again at all you've seen, though not to find clues, but revel in Joon-dong and his actors' ability to create something deserving of so much discussion.

Burning will be way too slow for general audiences, and some may look at the last hour, and the film's ending, and find it all very obvious. I do feel that the "obvious" is the likely and correct conclusion, but Burning has placed enough doubt in my mind to drive me elsewhere. Much like Schrödinger's Cat, Burning makes me feel as though I know what happened, yet until I see the cat inside the box...what do I really know.