An enticing thriller that will stay with you for days to follow.
The impact this South Korean thriller has comes not from what is within the frame, but what is left out. The absence of people, words left unsaid and minimal style all lend well to a slow but superb film. Lee Chang-Dong’s psychological drama follows the mantra less is more to great effect, slowly seducing you, drawing you in, only to lash out and strike, leaving you stunned and scrambling to trace back where things went wrong. The film follows three core characters, with a heavier focus on Jeon Jong-seo’s Lee Jong-su, a struggling graduate with tangled familial issues who comes across Hae-mi (Yoo Ah-in). She informs him they are old classmates, despite his lack of recollection, and enlists him into looking after her cat while she travels to Africa. Romance entangles them, and on her return she brings the elusive Ben into their lives and things escalate from there.
Throughout the film, what underpins and enhances the simple plot is the stunning score and sound mixing. A sense of eerie unease is established from the beginning, without being noticeable or pointed. It lures you in, a quiet discomfort that places you as a voyeur into the melancholic world of dissatisfied and jealous Gangnam youth. News reports of youth unemployment and circling mention of credit card debt create a sense of longing and desperation amongst the characters of Lee Jong-Su and Hae-mi, both enamoured by Ben’s wealth and silent confidence. The mix of slow pulsing tones and at some points jazz and searing fire help to heighten the awareness of the characters and their actions on screen. It is the silence in the film, however, the spaces that Lee leaves us which grant us room to dig into them, that allow us to make our own decisions about their integrity. This freedom and ambiguity that adds to the intrigue and tension in the film – with the somewhat open plot further building on the mystery and even once it ends – has you questioning your interpretation of events.
Steven Yuen gives a standout performance, following straight on from his part in Sorry to Bother You; in this film, he is much darker, nuanced and charismatic. His actual lines in the film are not extensive, however so precise and delivered with a wicked undertone that leaves you following him around the screen as he generates a tempting unease that intrigues and alarms all at once. He says so much without saying anything.
The clean aesthetic of the film mirrors the narrative. With very natural cinematography, the presence of the camera is almost forgotten and allows us closer into the world of the characters. Contrasting grey blue evenings and burning flames juxtapose each other beautifully. A lack of artificial lighting and sound adds to this and creates a very real world in which the messages, themes and impact of the film can leave the most realistic impression on the audience.
The description of Burning as a slow film is not a negative comment, but a refreshing change amongst the crowded cinematic universes and plot driven roller-coaster blockbusters in today’s films. Instead, the film envelopes you within its mystery; it’s strikingly seductive, uncomfortable at times, yet an intense mystery.
Burning (2018), directed by Lee Chang-Dong, is distributed in the UK via Thunderbird Releasing, certificate 15.