“Burning” is subtle and sensitive mystery by a Korean master

Director Lee Chang-Dong is the pitmaster of film. Instead of bringing out films year after year, or even two years, like most in his profession, he prefers to let his films simmer, and in the process allows the flavors to become deeper and more intriguing. It’s been eight years since his previous masterstroke, Poetry, hit theaters, and in that time he may have cooked up his greatest film yet. Subtle, mysterious, and utterly horrifying, Burning combines the mystery of Haruki Murakami’s beloved short story, with the sensitive, character-forward filmmaking that has made Lee such a well-respected name in World Cinema.

Much of Burning’s effectiveness lies in Lee’s ability to build mystery. The director has confidence in his audience’s intelligence, providing just enough information to keep them satiated, while withholding enough to keep them curious. When tapestry finally starts taking shape, and the strings slowly but surely start coming together, we’re treated to one of the most subtle, but devastating revelations in film this year, leaving us emotionally devastated. It’s something that could only be accomplished with acute, precise brushstrokes, by someone with a good understanding of both human behavior, and storytelling, and Lee proves himself to be a master of both.

Steven Yeun is such a pleasant surprise here. While Yuen had impressed in bit roles in film and TV for some time, nothing prepares one for what Burning has in store, one of the most fascinating antagonists we’ve seen in years. He boils with charisma from his first moment, but there’s a sense of distrust lurking below it all, which slowly forms into a perilous cloud of darkness as the film progresses. As in all the film’s elements, it’s handled with intricate nuance, which makes his character’s actions all the more affecting and chilling.

Yeun isn’t the only one showing off amazing work here, however. Credit must be given to Yoo Ah-in and Jeon Jong-Seo, his two co-leads. It’s easy to think we have Jeon’s character figured out the moment we see her, but as the reels play, we find something hiding behind her eyes, shades of which we see sparks of even in the her earliest moments, but which explode in her as the film reaches its mid-point, and a major action changes the character dynamics for good. The twist could have been a difficult, or rote, sell, but it’s a sign of the quality of Jeon’s performance that this moment carries so much weight. It’s a performance that lurks somewhere between sensuality and sorrow, her free-spirited nature constantly battling against a long-buried pain. That this is her debut film is nothing short of shocking, as she tackles each scene with the ease of a seasoned pro.

Yoo has the unenviable task of playing an everyman. Lee has created a protagonist that the audience can see themselves in, and such characters can often appear s dry or one-note. When you add to this the character’s tendency to seem selfish and, frankly, unlikable in the film’s opening hour, it’s easy for many audiences write him off entirely. However, it’s these characteristics that make his arc so fascinating to watch. Though in many ways his journey falls into the “mans becomes better through the suffering of a woman” trope, you still can’t deny that the journey Yoo goes on is a powerful one, especially as we reach the film’s final, brutal shots. The man we find at film’s end is a far cry from the young, immature kid that begins the film, and that’s a remarkable accomplishment for such a young actor.

Burning is one of the most effective mysteries of the year, not because we’re left wondering who the perpetrator could be, but because, for much of the film, we’re never quite sure of the crime that has occurred. Lee’s ability to weave subtle incident into his storytelling in order to keep an audience on their toes is praiseworthy, making a second watch not only more illuminating, but practically essential. Luckily, those rewatches never feel like a chore, as it’s a film improves with every watch, a glimmering gem unveils new wonders with each turn, and another worthy feather in Lee’s already illustrious cap.

Burning is coming to Bluray on March 5. You can also catch a special screening as part of a Lee Chang Dong retrospective at the Austin Film Society on Thursday, February 28th.

Photo courtesy of WellGoUSA.

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