Paranoia, moral ambiguity and jealousy take centre stage in Lee Chang-dong’s faultlessly-executed new film Burning. Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami entitled Barn Burning, the film mixes drama and intrigue to tell one of the most thought-provoking and utterly devastating stories of the year so far. Starring South Korean star Ah-in Yoo and Korean-American actor Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead), Burning is set in modern day South Korea where old traditions and an ever-advancing consumerist culture live happily side by side.
Ah-in Yoo (Six Flying Dragon) is Jong-su, a young aspiring writer fresh out of university and still unsure of what he wants to do with his life. On a rare visit to the capital, Jong-su meets Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), an outgoing sales hostess who recognises him from their school days in the countryside. The two soon hit it off and Jong-su is invited to go back to Hae-mi’s tiny apartment in one of the poorest areas of the city. There, she informs him that she will soon be taking a trip to Africa and asks if he can look after her cat while she’s gone. Later the two have sex and casually go their separate way.
Weeks later, a now infatuated Jong-su is relieved to hear back from his new friend who calls to inform him that she is finally on her way back from her eventful trip. However, the young man’s excitement is short-lived when the object of his affection introduces him to her travel companion Ben (Yeun), a smartly-dressed and handsome highflier who lives in one of most upmarket areas of the city, but who remains tight-lipped about what he does for a living. The three soon become inseparable, but Jong-su becomes increasingly more suspicious when Hae-mi starts a relationship with Ben. Later, during a drug-fuelled conversation, Ben divulges a dark secret about himself to his young rival, a secret which in turn sends Jong-su into a frenzied search for the truth when Hae-mi goes missing shortly after.
Lee Chang-dong offers a beautifully thought-out and deftly executed film which draws you in from the get go and never lets you go until its dying seconds. Packed full of symbolisms and allegory, Burning doesn’t try to be needlessly cerebral, nor is ever alienating towards its audience. Instead, Burning relies on the complexity of its protagonists in order to tell a story shrouded in mystery whilst remaining completely absorbing throughout.
Above all, Burning is a character study of two extremely familiar literary characters, there are shades of Gatsby and of The Talented Mr Ripley and even a hint of Salinger. It is a film which is so impressively aware of its worth, that you can’t help but admire the subtlety in which it handles the most intricate aspects of its story.
Steven Yeun gives a brilliantly self-aware and poignant performance as a man who can’t be second-guessed. His icy stillness, and at times, provocative passivity adds to the sense of unease without taking anything away from his apparent charm.
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For his part, Ah-in Yoo does a great job in bringing the Yin to his rival’s Yang by offering Jong-su as a man who appears to be far more emotive and decidedly more human in his dealings with the woman he loves. While Jong-seo Jun gives an impressive performance in an unequivocally male-centric narrative in which the male gaze takes centre stage throughout.
Burning is as stunningly made and as expertly acted as you might have heard and more than deserves the hype being created around it this award season. It manages to be both poignant as well as unabashedly accessible, which is a feat in itself.