Burning is a strange film, ultimately rewarding but very challenging in its slow rhythms and ambiguity. When the film stars, the hapless Jong-su, a young man working a menial job, develops feelings for an old school friend, Hae-mi. But Hae-mi falls under the sway of a wealthy young businessman named Ben. When Jong-su begins to have doubts about Ben’s intentions, begins to believe that Hae-mi is in danger, we have to wonder if his suspicions have merit or if they’re the result of a paranoid jealousy. Is the charming, affable Ben just a little too charming? Or is the unhappy, rejected Jong-su just a little too suspicious? At almost two-and-a-half hours, Lee spins out this simple story at a glacial pace that will absolutely alienate any viewers there for the thrills or suspense. In some ways Lee is deconstructing the thriller genre as a whole with lengthy sequences that just kind of follow Jong-su through his dull routines and I’ll admit that this movie tried even my prodigious patience. I’m the guy who once said I wouldn’t cut a single second from Toni Erdmann, okay? And this movie tried my patience. But there are sections where the movie just really, really works. The performances are quite good, some of them even great. Steven Yeun is pitch perfect as the slick, somewhat sociopathic Ben and Jeon Jong-seo is fragile, off-balance and heartbreaking as Hae-mi. Yoo Ah-in’s lead performance is strange, troubling and uncharismatic; Jong-su is an unlikely lead for a movie and Ah-in plays him that way. A lengthy scene of the three characters at Jong-su’s house, sitting outside and talking as twilight fades into night is a scene of absolute beauty and poetry. I realized at one point that I was literally holding my breath in the theater, I was so transfixed by the scene. This is a film that will challenge most viewers, even viewers who are down for a slowly-paced Korean psychological drama. The rewards are great, however, and it’s a film that lingers in the mind in a pretty powerful way. Lee perhaps deconstructs too much; the ending is disappointing even when you’re fine with it being an anti-climax. But it’s a film very much worth wrestling with and it’s a strange, unforgettable experience. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – psychological drama from Korea boasts great performances & a unique atmosphere; the incredibly slow pace will alienate many, but the challenge rewards. 3 ½ stars.