Burning is a slow-sputtering chiller of a psychological thriller from acclaimed South Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong. Mesmerising and unique.
Although the setting has been changed to today’s Seoul, Burning is adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, and it shows. Drawing you in from the get-go with its almost-surreal atmosphere, the film ratchets up the suspense notch by notch as a love triangle situation plays out between three strange yet entirely believable characters.
Two of them, aspiring young writer Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) and the eccentric and free-spirited Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), come from the same poor rural hometown, located within earshot of propaganda announcements from the North Korean side of the border. Having known each other in childhood, they are re-acquainted when they cross paths as young adults in Seoul.
Hae-mi asks Jong-su to feed her cat while she’s away on holidays in Africa. Just before she leaves they spend a night together, but Jong-su’s hopes of an ongoing romance appear shaky when she returns from her trip with the urbane and good-looking Ben (Steven Yeun). He’s one of Seoul’s young rich set, drives a Porsche (which contrasts starkly with Jong-su’s battered old pick-up truck), and lives in a swank apartment in the fashionable Gangnam district.
Jong-su is taken aback and intrigued when Ben takes an instant liking to him, puts aside his sense of rivalry, and before long the three are spending time together.
Ben turns on the charm, but something’s wrong – he evokes a vague foreboding, and there are hints of something dangerous coiled like a snake within him. He derives a cruel kick out of introducing his new rural working class pals to his beautiful people set (a vacuous lot, with whom he’s clearly bored) and watching what happens.
When he divulges his “hobby” to Jong-su as a selective form of arson and Hae-mi goes missing shortly after, it’s as if a long fuse to a powder keg has been lit. An explosive climax is an inevitability – it’s just a matter of how and when. And director Lee Chang-dong is in no hurry to relieve the tension and suspense, pushing it to the max to knuckle-blanching effect.
Burning is a brilliant psychological thriller from an acclaimed director at the top of his game. There’s very little action, the drama working mostly through the expertly managed dialogue and characters’ interactions – yet the film is riveting throughout its entire 140 minutes. Mesmerising, in fact. And it has to be said, while all the performances are excellent, beneath his fresh-faced, smiling and gently spoken façade Steven Yeun’s Ben is as chilling a character as I’ve come across in many a long year.
This work is a world away from Hollywood. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it. Don’t expect a neat ending with all loose ends tied up. While the resolution is perfect, you’re left thinking for days about the characters, the unshown and the unsaid.
Burning is first-class Festival fare that might not re-surface on the local indie cinema circuit. Don’t miss.
Movie Website: https://www.palacefilms.com.au/burning/
Burning screening dates (2018-19 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival):
Somerville: 4-10 Feb 2019, 8pm
Joondalup Pines: 12-17 Feb 2019, 8pm
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