Jong-Su (Yoo) returns to his hometown near the Korean border to work on his father's farm. Sparks fly when he runs into a former school friend, Hae-mi (Jeon), and the two strike up a casual relationship. When Hae-mi returns from a trip abroad with a enigmatic new boyfriend, Ben (Yeun), things start to heat up, as he reveals a dark secret about himself to Jong-Su, shortly before Hae-mi suddenly and abruptly disappears, like a puff of smoke…
‘Burning’ is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, a writer renowned for juxtaposing the mundanity of everyday life with fleeting sublime moments, and director Lee Chang-dong does an excellent job at adapting this for film. The film must be commended for its visual storytelling, with meticulous set design and intelligent lighting subtly layering additional levels of meaning onto the human drama driving the slowly-unfolding plot. And I do mean slowly – running to two and a half hours, ‘Burning’ takes its time heating up. While there are a couple of scenes or plot strands that feel a little overlong or unnecessary, the slow pace befits this plot overall, and there’s no shortage of detail to hold your attention.
From its establishing tracking shots of a bustling urban market, to the stark desolation of the closing scene, Chang-dong presents a dynamic but unsettled world so rich with detail that it feels real and solidly lived-in, yet thoroughly destabilised. With Jong-Su’s farm located close enough to the Korean border to hear daily propaganda broadcasts, blaring simultaneously with his television showing Donald Trump on CNN talking about closing a different border, geopolitical anxiety starts to fuse with existential angst about his place in that world, and the kind of man he must be to get along in it. It’s the perfect environment for this kind of psychological mystery/drama. Similarly, the silhouetting of characters and buildings as shadows, outlines, in need of greater depth to refute all ambiguity, play so effectively against dazzling sunsets, blazing fires, and mountainous landscapes. The technical achievement here is truly stunning.
Yet as good as this film looks, it is primarily a character study about the intertwining relationships between the three leads, all of whom are superb. The talented Jong-seo Jeon has the unenviable task of infusing the somewhat shallow, ‘basic’ Hae-mi with unsuspected depth of feeling, resulting in some really moving sequences. Ah-in Yoo excels as Jong-Su, whose increasing anxiety and confusion is unnervingly palpable, despite it rarely being articulated through dialogue, while Steven Yeun is revelatory as Ben. Unflappable and unreadable, Yeun imbues Ben’s laid-back physical presence, subtle sideways looks and giveaway yawn (or, as we might term it, the #StevenYawn) first with charm, then with quiet malignance. Again, it is astonishing how much of the story, and the relationship between these characters, is told through body language and deft physical performance.
With support from a stellar cast and crew, Lee Chang-dong crafts a masterful adaptation of Murakami’s short story, slowly simmering to a haunting, nightmarish intensity. ‘Burning’ is a masterpiece: unmissable for fans of character-focused psychological drama.