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Burning

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/20/18 05:15:55

"Not quite a barn-burner, but plenty exciting in its own way."
5 stars (Awesome)

The title of "Burning" begs for it to be described as a slow-burn thriller, but it takes a while to get there and even then holds back a lot that makes a mystery story fun. It makes the puzzle almost irrelevant, but lets director Lee Chang-dong emphasize the things genre films are often about underneath the surface all the more clearly. It's an impressive bit of work, both despite and because of how it flips the way hope and despair usually work in this type of movie.

It maintains at least some efficiency in how it gets started, though, as young day laborer Lee Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) is recognized by Shin Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), a girl from his hometown of Paju doing the sort of promotional work that involves a bare midriff. They have a drink and make small talk; he's completed college and military service and is writing a novel, while she's been saving up for a trip to Africa and needs someone to feed her cat. He agrees and also starts looking after the family farm after his father gets in trouble. She comes back from Kenya accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun Sang-yeop), who lives a pricey Gangnam neighborhood and also takes an interest in Jongsu. One night, smoking some weed on Jongsu's porch, Ben mentions he has an unusual - and illegal - hobby, but Jongsu soon finds he has something more pressing to worry about.

Unless, of course, they're the same thing. That's where the mystery starts to kick in, though Jongsu has already likened Ben to Jay Gatsby in how he's rich and genial, but doesn't seem to do much of anything in particular (South Korea has a lot of Gatsbys). Here, Lee doesn't just become less interested in efficiency but decides to skip even the usual signposts along a meandering path, allowing the audience to develop their suspicions alongside Jongsu, though, like him, that audience has no sort of formal indication that they are on the right track. The filmmakers also skip other rituals, such as the appeal to authority that is dismissed because of matters of class or standing or the lack of clear evidence, and it pushes the viewer to a profoundly uncomfortable place, where what has transpired is almost certain, but the specific details are lacking to the point where doubt is almost an obligation.

Jongsu is a fittingly uncertain protagonist for that sort of story; he aims to be a writer but at 24 has little experience to inform his writing, and is not exactly seeking more. He won't even look directly at Haemi until after Ben has shown interest in her. Yoo Ah-in makes this rigidity just harsh enough, an indication that there is cruelty in this guy but which leaves the audience unsure just how much. Jongsu is a bit more at ease when he's alone, but not quite the same way as when he's trying to pull clues and information out of people later on. He's learning how to handle his strong emotions, but not always in the most positive way.

If that makes Jongsu sound more like the villain than the hero, it's fitting, as Lee has Steven Yeun make Ben kind of beatific in his potential evil. He never smiles too wide or overtly flaunts his wealth, and even when he lets his mask drop enough to reveal he knows what sort of game he's playing with Jongsu, he's level, not giving any sort of impression that he's deliberately reining himself in. It's nevertheless clear that he fully knows his position relative to Jongsu and Haemi, and Yeun occasionally shows just a bit of smugness, most notably when Haemi is talking about her trip to the guys and some of Ben's well-off friends, just enough "look at the rube" to pick up on but not enough to be sure of.

Jeon Jong-seo's Haemi is also a reflection of Jongsu, similarly alienated and abandoned and occasionally checking out in her own way despite being around other people. Jeon puts a bit of loneliness into her every scene, but the tragedy of Haemi may be that she's not fundamentally a sad character; desperate as she is to be loved, she's also genuinely kind and has more curiosity than her two more educated suitors put together. She's not always exactly a ray of sunshine, but it's not hard to see why her absence even after a a fairly short reunion hits Jongsu hard, whether just because she's in the city with Ben or more inaccessible.

That's what makes Jongsu's own solitude more palpable and desperate, although Lee, as mentioned, skips a lot of the obvious, confrontational ways to show this. The moments that generate the most certainty are actually some of the more passive ones, including one of Jongsu trying to surreptitiously spy on Ben that I suspect will feel diminished on the small screen as the scale of the people and empty space around them won't seem right. Lee and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo also make impressive, conscious use of the time of day - darkness falls as characters reveal their darker side, and scenes with the distinctive light of dawn and dusk impresses upon the audience just how much of Jongsu's time his new obsession is consuming. The soundtrack by Mowg takes grinding, persistent residence in the viewer's head.

It ends on a scene that certainly does all it can to sear itself into one's memory, offers what feels like a definitive sense of resolution, but doesn't undercut the ambiguity that led up to it. You can recommend "Burning" as a thriller - it doesn't dismiss the structure it's built on - but what makes it great and unnerving is far more than the question of whether Jongsu will solve a riddle.

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