REVIEW: Burning is a Brilliant Slow-Burn Mystery
I had the pleasure of seeing Burning, from director Lee Chang-dong, at the BFI London Film Festival a few weeks back. I was not sure what to expect because the trailer does not give much away. The film’s synopsis is vague but that paid off wonderfully. What I got was a thrilling movie that posed more questions than it answered, in a good way.
When Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young writer, bumps into an old childhood friend Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) their friendship quickly redevelops. Hae-mi goes on a trip to Africa where she meets Ben (Steven Yeun) an enigmatic guy who is seemingly wealthy, at least in comparison to Hae-mi and Jong-su. As the three begin to hang out, we learn more about Ben, or at least what Lee Chang-dong wants us to know. But then one day Hae-mi stops answering calls from Jong-su, she is gone. What begins to unfold is a very Hitchcockian narrative with surprising twists and turns that lead to a dramatic conclusion.
Based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami, the movie shares few similarities to the story with locations and characters being changed, but some of the themes from the story stay the same. The movie is in the vein of films like Vertigo and Gone Girl in the sense that it creates a sense of paranoia which makes you feel like Jong-su, who is unsure of people he meets and not trusting of his rival, Ben. Director Chang-dong creates a story shrouded in mystery, a story that doesn’t talk down to the audience and expects them to keep track of the crumbs left by Ben. The cinematography is gorgeous and helps build up the noir overtones that encapsulate the movie. The score, like the movie, is slow and meditative and builds to great moments.
Steven Yeun stands out in the movie as Ben. His performance is both scary and charming and came as a surprise to me. I had watched him in The Walking Dead but he was never given any thing substantial, so to see him in a role as good as this one was a treat. I expect he will be given a lot more opportunities in the coming months which are well deserved. Yoo Ah-in is also great as our reluctant protagonist flung into a mystery that he would probably prefer to write about. However, because of the nature of the story I feel that Jeon Jong-seo’s Hae-Mi is given time to shine but not enough of it. Some would argue that her character is only there to serve the male characters which is mostly true, but I feel like that could be delved into deeper in its own article.
Overall, Burning is a slow building mystery that will keep you guessing even after the credits roll. While it doesn’t answer every question thrown out it is a satisfying story that will make you want to re-watch it to see what clues you missed. In my honest opinion it is a must see.
Burning is currently expanding through the US and chances are it will be hard to find, I would recommend buying it once it hits blu-ray or VOD if you miss it in theaters.