“Burning,” South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s new film, is an indelible, slow-burn thriller that begins as a quiet character study, detours into an enigmatic tale of romance and jealousy, then finally emerges as a chilling and unsettlingly elusive mystery.
Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” the film follows quiet, unassuming country boy Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in). He has vague dreams of becoming a novelist, but in the meantime works as a delivery driver in big-city Seoul. By chance, one day he runs into Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman who says they knew each other as children growing up in the same provincial village. Some brief conversation unexpectedly leads to sex, and afterward Hae-mi tells Jong-su that she’ll be leaving on a mission to Africa. She asks him to look after her cat while she’s gone; with little else to do, he accepts.
The film takes its time in this early section, allowing us to observe Jong-su and get a sense of his rather sad, little world. His mother walked out when he was just a child, and his lonely military veteran father is imprisoned and awaiting trial for assaulting a police officer. On his own, Jong-su’s left to tend to the family’s tiny, rundown dairy farm. But he continues to honor Hae-mi’s request, and in her absence she grows into an object of fantasy for the increasingly obsessed young man.
So he’s crushed when Hae-mi returns and she introduces him to her mysterious new friend Ben (Steven Yeun), whom she met while abroad. Ben is wealthy, cultured, handsome and witty — in short, everything Jong-su is not. As the relationship between the three grows into something of a love triangle, Ben’s air of entitlement and superiority begins to get under Jong-su’s skin. One night, the three get stoned, and Ben confesses to Jong-su his secret hobby of burning abandoned greenhouses to the ground. Shortly thereafter, Hae-mi vanishes without a trace.
Suspecting Ben has something to do with Hae-mi’s disappearance, Jong-su takes it upon himself to solve the mystery. But his investigation — fueled by frustration, yearning and a long-suppressed rage looking for an outlet — seems less about discovering what happened to Hae-mi than restoring his own wounded pride.
Bubbling under the film’s surface are the tensions of a disenfranchised working class — snippets of news broadcasts about skyrocketing unemployment rates and Donald Trump sound bites we hear warbling from Jong-su’s television aren’t there by accident. The narrative smolders with jealousy, thwarted masculinity and class resentment; the growing tension between them all creates a feeling of doomed inevitability.
“Burning” dwells in ambiguity. Every new detail of its narrative only makes the truth that much murkier. Facts gets distorted and memories are never as clear as their owners claim. It’s a puzzling psychological character study of three distinct individuals that grows cloudier as we realize our impressions of two of them have been filtered through the third’s deeply skewed perspective.
In his first leading Korean film role, Steven Yeun (known for his role on “The Walking Dead") gives a magnetic performance as Ben. Charismatic, with an air of quiet menace, we can never be sure of Ben’s true motivations, and Yeun lets us read what we will from his character’s opaque exterior. Making her film debut, Jeon portrays Hae-mi as an impulsive young woman plagued with an ineffable sadness that neither Ben nor Jong-su bother to notice.
Lee’s deliberately-paced direction builds the narrative slowly before tightening its viselike grip on its way to its shocking ending. What it all means is open to interpretation: Is “Burning” a portrait of alienated youth? An exploration of simmering class divides? A murder-mystery involving one, or maybe three, sociopaths? Wherever you land on the film’s meaning, the picture that finally comes into view is a difficult one to shake.
EXCELLENT (****), GOOD (***), FAIR (**), POOR (*)