When Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) goes to Africa she asks her old schoolmate Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) to look after her cat. When she returns with enigmatic Ben (Steven Yeun) who she met in Africa, Jong-su is dismayed and feels pushed out by the two of them.
Burning is a slow-burn of a film about class and sexual desire. Jong-su and Hae-mi are both originally from the north of South Korea, from a farming town that’s so close to the border that they can hear propaganda announcements from North Korea. Ben, on the other hand, is a Gatsby-like character, he’s young and rich and no one – Jong-su especially – knows what he does to earn his money. He’s charming and mysterious and lives in a modern apartment in Seoul and appears to have the perfect life compared to Jong-su.
Burning follows Jong-su’s perspective and he isn’t a particularly likeable character. He’s quiet and reserved and, as the film progresses, it reveals to be more or a character-study of Jong-su than anything else. Burning is full of unexpected choices, evolving from a potential love triangle into a psychological mystery, with three characters that are equal parts captivating and cold.
The scenery at Jong-su’s home is bleak yet beautiful. Conversations with double meanings happen at sunset with haunting music playing that leaves both Jong-su and the viewers unsettled by what they’re experiencing. As everything begins to build, Jong-su becomes more obsessed with both Hae-mi and Ben, two characters who aren’t altogether what they seem. There are secrets and lies, and the mystery becomes more and more mesmerising.
Burning is a weird, unsettling film anchored by a subtle yet absorbing performance by Ah-In Yoo. Its 2 and a half hour runtime can be noticeable though, as it certainly takes it’s time to slowly rack up the tension, but the performances from the three main actors are all brilliant and it’s their little nuances that pull you in and make this film so mesmerising.
Directed by: Chang-dong Lee
Starring: Ah-In Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jeon