There are some stories in cinema that are told about what lurks beneath the frame. The very definition of what we see; actors, environments, inanimate objects, and the choices made between them are what constitutes a film as we know it. Some films, however, take that extra step – as if putting itself under a spell of its own engineering – which then designs a story layered enough to reward repeat viewings until your last breath. Burning by famed South Korean director Lee Chang-dong is such a concoction, a boiling neo-noir of obsession and psychological fallout that is built upon a series of spells it puts its audience under. It’s a film of such startling visual artistry and seriously unsettling ambiguity built between the threads of its creation that you’ll spend just as much time thinking about how the story was told just as much as why.
Yoo Ah-in is an instantly commanding presence as the introverted Lee Jong-su. He’s a young man entrapped by the economic circumstances as a deliveryman that informs much of his interpersonal experiences and grueling routine, a routine that is soundly broken by the arrival of his childhood acquaintance (if she can even be called that) Hae-mi, played by Jun Jong-seo. After reconnecting and having a one night stand, Lee sees a potential way out of his conflicted and lonely existence. That is until she returns from a trip to Africa with the instantly beguiling Ben (Steven Yeun). Ben has a Cheshire Cat quality to him in the way he smiles and carries himself. It doesn’t take long for Jong-su to see how he’s the perfect shadow to Ben; both are informed by their opposite sides of their class and personality archetypes. Jong-su’s face gives almost everything away as someone with nothing to really hide or have a reason to. Ben likes to squint as he smiles as he tells people he likes “to play” for a living. It’s a telling moment to even see their cars together, with Jong-sus’ beat up pickup parked right next to Ben’s car…a sleek and shiny black Porsche 911. Thwarted masculinity can only keep the camaraderie together for so long.
To say more as the film reaches a plot curve at its middle point would be a pretty severe disservice. Burning throws as many loops into its plot as Quentin Tarantino has shot images of feet in his career. It’s a brilliant tightrope that Lee Chang-dong walks across, to perfectly balance twists and turns that serves the story a purpose rather than the story being in service to the subversion. To say nothing of the hauntingly beautiful cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo, where he shoots in deep shadows and intense colors that evoke only the strongest emotional reactions that it’s director/cinematographer desire from you. A character dancing in the midst of a sunset is shot with the same visceral hunger as anything in Mad Max: Fury Road. You can imagine how the scenes of actual intensity are framed and developed.
But Burning belongs to Steven Yeun. Fresh of “Walking Dead” fame sees the actor in one of the most virulently compelling performances of the year. Making eye contact with him feels like a boxing match, and meeting him at his Gatsby-esque crib as he listens to classical jazz while making gourmet pasta feels like a hostage situation. It’s very hard to talk about his character in a spoiler-free context, yet his influence in the film sinks its teeth farther than just his hobbies. Jong-su’s desire for Hae-mi always feels like its being invaded by Ben’s presence, sometimes even his memory. He’s a tangible ghost of what Jong-su hates yet desires, the affluence, and almost bottomless charisma. At its heart, this is a film about one hell of a power struggle between the two, both introspective and outward in their own lives.
One of the best films of 2018, Burning proves itself to be an instant classic to the neo-noir pantheon and a priceless gem for the Sad Boy Detective subgenre. The menace and fear of unknowing permeate every second, no matter how relaxed a moment may seem, until the pot boils over as all slow burns must. But get ready for a slow burn that feels seriously hot even as you get in the water.
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