Burning is an apt title for South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s new film. Not only does fire form a pivotal plot point, at 148 minutes, it’s a long, languid, slow-burn of the highest order, which is sure to put off some viewers. If you can sit through the stillness, however, the movie has much to offer, an oblique, shifting thriller with echoes of Hitchcock.
Jee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) drifts through life, working part time, dreaming of becoming a writer—talking about it much more than doing anything to pursue that course. When he runs into Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood neighbor and acquaintance, she asks him to watch her cat while she’s in Africa. When she returns, she arrives with Ben (Steven Yeun), a mysterious new friend. Cockey and well off, it’s never clear what he does for a living, and as the trio spends time together, he needles and bullies and pushes Jong-su’s buttons.
Eventually, the plot develops into a tense, twisting mystery with shades of Vertigo that engulfs the trio, but before we ever get there, it takes its sweet ass time. Some will find this deliberate and effective, but for others, it will play as tedious and gratuitously drawn out. I’ve seen this hailed as a masterpiece and derided as an overlong slog. Honestly, I fall somewhere in the middle. I see and understand what the early going wants to accomplish, and I think it does, but I also believe it could have accomplished the same things in much less time. Once the mystery kicks in and Jong-su begins picking at Ben’s true nature and motivations, the pace moves more quickly, but until then, it will surely test the patience of many viewers.
Based on a Haruki Murakami short story, Burning should appeal to fans of the author. It has class conscious and political aspirations—we see Donald Trump on the TV and Jong-su’s farm is so close to North Korea you hear loudspeaker-broadcast propaganda—that aim to add depth and import, to varied degrees of success. The plot unfolds in a familiar dreamy, esoteric, obtuse way that so many of his narratives do. If nothing else, Lee does a remarkable job translating the feel and sensation of a Murakami story to film.
Burning hits many Murakami tropes. There’s a cat, a well, it circles and circles before fully embarking, and it eschews easy, obvious answers for heavy metaphor and allegory. It also treats female characters with the author’s trademark short shrift. Hae-mi is essentially his version of a manic pixie dream girl. She dances, she disrobes freely, she has no urgency, onus, or agency of her own; she’s a superficial type, a tool, a prop for the men to objectify, obsess over, and fixate upon. More than anything, she’s Murakami’s stock quirky female character who leads men on a strange journey, which is pretty much his M.O.
Hae-mi functions as intended, as at its core, Burning is a story about toxic male behavior and the possessive entitlement men feel over women and their bodies. But would it have killed them to make her an actual character and not just a piece of the plot mechanics? The potential is there; the groundwork exists. She may or may not make up elaborate tales and spinning intricate yarns—about her past or even whether or not her cat is real. Jong-su may be the writer, but Hae-mi is the true storyteller. But the script, adapted by Lee and Oh Jung-mi, never gives her anything beyond foibles and eccentricities, mistaking that for depth or personality.
Jeon does what she can with the character, but it’s written so frustratingly shallow, she can only do so much. Yoo delivers a strong performance as the directionless outsider, the “nice guy” who isn’t really as nice as he thinks he is and spends a lot of the movie masturbating in Hae-mi’s empty apartment—basically an incel. But it’s Yeun who stands out. I’m super glad Glenn died on The Walking Dead as it frees him up to do movies like this, Okja, Mayhem, and more interesting projects. On the surface, Ben’s all smiles and charm, but a bite and viciousness lurk below the surface.
Working with the phenomenal Hong Kyung-pyo (Snowpiercer, Mother, The Wailing), Burning looks incredible. Composer Mowg (I Saw the Devil, The Age of Shadows) adds an ominous score, and the entire package is thoughtful and meticulous. But how much you get out of it will vary by individual. Whether deliberate or tedious, meditative or dull, depends on the eye of the beholder, and as thrilling and fantastic as certain elements are, other tested the bounds of my patience. [Grade: B/B-]