Burning review Ah-in Yoo Steven YeunYear: 2018
Director: Chang-dong Lee
Writer(s): Jung-mi Oh, Chang-dong Lee (from a story by Haruki Murakami)
Region of Origin: South Korea
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: n/a
Color, 148 mins

Synopsis: A man finds himself in a dangerous situation after running into a childhood friend. 

Fire can destroy, create or cleanse. This is not unlike the fire that rages within each of us. We’re attracted to this essence and thirst for it, but it can burn or consume just the same. The complexity in this primal element of existence is what drives Chang-dong Lee’s Burning. Adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story, Lee’s latest is a masterful dissection of identity, purpose and connection. Blending fierce character study with heady mystery, the film pulls us into an unbreakable trance and explodes with its jaw-dropping conclusion. Replete with devastating performances from stars Ah-in Yoo, Jong-seo Jeon and Steven Yeun, Lee’s film is incredible. It unapologetically grabs us by the throat, exploring what we’re capable of when embracing the unquenchable urges that lie within.

Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) lives a pretty unremarkable life. He works odd jobs and is coping with a legal scandal that could have big implications for his disgraced father. Other than that, he’s lost within a sea of many. One day, he runs into an old childhood friend named Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon). Though the two haven’t seen each other in years, they instantly reconnect. There are hints of romance, but what they have remains unsaid. What’s for certain, is that there’s a real spark between the two. Something that could be the start of a deep relationship. Before anything can be solidified, Hae-mi jets to Africa, asking Jong-su to take care of her cat while she’s gone. When she returns, it’s with a new friend named Ben (Steven Yeun). He’s young, very wealthy and charismatic, the complete opposite of everything that Jong-su is. As the three spend more time together, they form an unusual friendship. Still, it becomes increasingly clear that Ben is harboring some dangerous secrets.

From the opening moments of flirtatious excitement, to an increasing sense of dread and paranoia, Lee’s latest is a top rate thriller rooted in primal angst. At the center of it all, is a story that exposes the complexity of who we are. We’re one thing to someone close, another to ourselves, and then there are the parts hidden deep within that we don’t yet know exist. Lee takes ideas and funnels them through an irresistible triad of three, exploring how we feed off of these elements to survive. He also captures how we attract and repel one another as we chase after fleeting moments of genuine connection. Just as Lee’s characters are quietly eaten away by gnawing fears and unsaid dangers, so too is the story one that subverts and gets under our skin. Of course, before we even have time to comprehend what’s at stake, it’s too late. The film has gradually shifted from subtle unease, to full-blown terror in the face of an unknown threats, both internal and external.

Burning review Jong-seo JeonWith its smart, layered view of character, the film is lined by a trio of powerful performances. Cast against type, Ah-in Yoo’s Jong-su is unassuming and meek, playing an everyman who can easily fade into the background. Still, Yoo embodies the film’s ideas and draws us into the its riddles. On the opposite side, Steven Yeun’s Ben is electric. By design, Yeun’s presence is at times overbearing. He’s limitlessly charming and we can’t help but be in awe of how he commands the screen and each characters’ attention. But, despite the charisma, there is a menace that hides beneath the surface. Not to be outdone, Jong-seo Jeon is the film’s heart. Though she’s kept at a distance and not fully given the agency that we’d like, Jeon still emits a quality that gives the film its spark. She makes Hae-mi an enigmatic force of nature that can’t be bound by anything or anyone around her. It’s a beautiful a performance that’s as haunting as it gets.

More than a mere mystery that can be solved by blaming a single culprit, Burning is much bigger. As Lee explores a story about being so close, yet so far, he delivers a film that tackles alienation, rage, love, toxic masculinity and the idea of burning bright and fast into a nightmare of our own making. This is hypnotic filmmaking at its most calculated and precise. It also questions the breadth of our very existence. Do we exist outside of the memories that people hold of us, and does what little mark we leave matter in the bigger scheme of things? There are no easy answers, nor could there be. At any rate, this is a film that absolutely stops us dead in our tracks. It’s undeniably eerie, poignant, and altogether unforgettable.