For a start, there are the sublime performances by Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun and Jong-seo Jun playing the three key characters in this seemingly simple but ultimately complex psychological story. On the surface, it’s a story about Lee Jong-su (Ah-in) an aspiring writer who gets by as a delivery boy. On one such delivery he bumps into Hae-mi (Jong-seo) a girl from the neighbourhood he grew up in. She recognises him and strikes up a conversation that quickly leads to the beginnings of a relationship. But, just as things get going, Hae-mi tells Lee that she must go away on a trip to Africa for a while and asks him to mind her cat. When she returns, though, she’s accompanied by Ben (Jeun) an arrogant rich kid who Lee sees as a rival for Hae-mi’s affections and so begins this fraught three- way relationship laced with desire, deception and jealousy; all the right ingredients for an entanglement that is bound to end badly for one or more of the trio.
There’s a very dark undertone to this story reminiscent of films like Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984) or Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Not that you’d really call Burning a thriller, but it’s the feeling that it might be heading down that path that is so compelling.
For many of us, Steven Yeun is well known as Glenn in The Walking Dead and whilst the character of Ben has some of the same charm, here he’s a colder more manipulative character. Or is he? Perhaps we (through the eyes of Lee) are misreading him; unfairly jumping to dark conclusions. It’s this ambiguity in how we understand the characters and Chang-dong’s skill at transferring the point-of-view from the character to the audience and back again that makes this film so effective. Nowhere is that aspect more powerful than in the key turning point scene of the story, when Ben and Hae-mi visit Lee at his rural farm. In a mesmerizing sequence, cinematographer Kyung- pyo Hong focuses his lens on Hae-mi as she dances, semi-naked, whilst the dusk falls before our eyes. What begins as Ben and Lee watching this innocent, erotic moment very quickly shifts to the audience as we watch the dance through their eyes and, as we do, are drawn into the emotional tension that lies between the two young men. It’s a beautiful scene, made all the more evocative by the use of Miles Davis’ melancholy tune, Générique.
As good as Yeun is in the role of Ben, though, it’s really Ah-in and Jong-seo that shine in performances that are simultaneously powerful and fragile in the seemingly effortless way they are played. And, in addition to the glorious use of Miles Davis, there’s a haunting soundtrack by Sung-hyun Lee (AKA Mowg) that infiltrates every delicate and violent moment of the film.
If there’s a weakness in this movie it’s that, at almost two and half hours, it doesn’t always sustain the tension, especially in the second act when we’re shifting from what we thought the film was to what it will soon become. But by the time we’ve reached the third act, the story has become so compelling and so tense that we’re willing to forgive a bit drag around the middle. Burning is a masterful work by a filmmaker at the top of his game. I’ll certainly be checking out his back catalogue whilst I wait to see what wonder he produces next.