[TIFF 2018] REVIEW: ‘Burning’ invites you to choose the genre – quiet drama or simmering thriller?

Yoo Ah-In stars as Lee Jong-su in  Burning , directed by Lee Chang-dong.

Yoo Ah-In stars as Lee Jong-su in Burning, directed by Lee Chang-dong.

Every so often, a movie comes along where you don’t feel up to the task of writing a review. Movies like these are formidable, densely layered things, and there’s a worry that whatever take you write won’t do the work justice. Burning, the new film from Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, is that kind of experience.

To oversimplify, Burning is a thriller, but only in a very cautious, ambiguous way. It invites many interpretations: it runs the gamut between convincing you that one of the three main characters is a cold-blooded serial killer, to the suggestion that much of what we see is a product of a character’s wild imagination. And even when it’s not pondering the details of the characters’ trials and tribulations, it also presents a fascinating image of life in Korea, showing us the grime of rural life, the immaculate homes of the Gangnam district in Seoul, and the humble areas in the middle.

This is what makes the film harder to evaluate than other, plot-driven works. Lee is content to lay out piles of visual information, like long shots of his actors’ faces, often in silence, and let us come to our own conclusions. And what a difference a day makes at TIFF: yesterday I saw The Wedding Guest, which also tries to let tableaux of its actors do the work the script is not, but that film still feels empty by comparison with Burning. Maybe it’s because we know just enough about the characters in Burning to care about them, or because there’s an innate flexibility to Lee’s direction that powers his drama. Either way, it’s fascinating to see how minimalism, wielded by different directors, yields such divergent results.

Jeon Jong-seo as Ha-emi.

Jeon Jong-seo as Ha-emi.

Burning follows Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-In), a shy part-time deliveryman and aspiring writer who encounters Shin Ha-emi (Jeon Jong-seo), an acquaintance from his rural village, in downtown Seoul one day. Ha-emi is working as a promotional dancer, and kindles a new friendship with Jong-su. Ha-emi has a very naïve, simplistic view of the world, and after asking Jong-su to feed her cat while she’s on vacation, she returns in the company of Ben (Steven Yeun), seemingly oblivious to Jong-su’s developing feelings for her. But to Jong-su, there’s something off about Ben: he’s super-wealthy, apparently jobless, and claims to enjoy burning down abandoned greenhouses as a hobby.

Then Ha-emi goes missing, and Jong-su, motivated possibly by jealousy or by legitimate evidence of Ben’s misdeeds (it’s up to the audience) suspects Ben is involved in her disappearance. What follows isn’t so much an investigation by Jong-su but a timid circling of Ben; Jong-su seems to know that he doesn’t have enough proof, but trails Ben all the same, and it isn’t clear until the very last scene what Jong-su is going to do.

Steven Yeun as Ben.

Steven Yeun as Ben.

To be sure, the pace of Burning is slow, and those expecting a Hitchcockian everyman wrapping up a citizen-justice murder case in the space of 100 minutes will be disappointed. Lee lays out enough material that up until that final scene (and perhaps even beyond it), the door is still open for the tables to turn and Jong-su to be revealed as the one who kidnapped Ha-emi. That’s what makes the film so enthralling: many stories condition us to expect that the protagonist is to be trusted and cheered on, but details like Jong-su masturbating in Ha-emi’s empty apartment, when he goes over to feed the cat, suggest a man who may not be as well-adjusted as we assume.

And while Yoo Ah-In is the centrepiece of the film – his Jong-su is simultaneously awkward yet invisible – it’s hard to take your eyes off Yeun. The depth of Yeun’s preparation for the role is displayed in how little he gives away; Ben is an example of a character who knows exactly how much power he has, but doesn’t feel the need to prove it. Yeun keeps us waiting for a veil to drop and reveal something we thought we knew, creating magnificent tension.

The tricky part about Burning is how to recommend it; its deliberate rhythm isn’t for everybody. But like one of the many mysteries Jong-su probes, the film is a deep well, and the important question is what you draw out of it.

Burning gets four stars out of four.

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Stray thoughts

  • The cinematography is intensely beautiful, especially the scenes in the countryside. Here’s hoping it gets nominated for an Oscar in that category, beyond a Best Foreign Film nod.
  • I want Steven Yeun to play a Bond villain now, just to see what he does with it.
  • This is the kind of film where the long take of Jong-su writing on his laptop could either convince you he’s begun his novel, or just that he’s writing an email.