Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) is a lonely delivery man. When he runs into a childhood friend, Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), he soon develops feelings for her. Things are complicated when she returns from a trip to Africa with a new friend, Ben (Steven Yeun), who is rich, carefree and charming. Ben’s motives are unclear, particular when he takes an interest in Jongsu.
Burning is a Korean adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story (Burning Barns) and certainly features a great many of Murakami’s themes such as loneliness, insecurity and jealousy. There’s also a cat and a story involving being stuck down a well for good measure.
The film is a very slow-burning thriller that maintains a sense of tension throughout. The pacing remains steadily the same even when extraordinary things seem to be happening. This creates a sense of uncertainty. Could Jongsu’s suspicions be correct? The film hasn’t turned into fast paced thriller so perhaps it’s all in his head. Genre conventions won’t step in to save us from the reality of the story.
The story is also very contained, mostly taking place between three characters. All three lead actors offer compelling and believable performances. Steven Yeun in particular has a natural charisma that is a perfect counterpoint to Yoo Ah-in’s anxious aloofness.
The cinematography is gorgeous, beautifully cutting between the cool mists of the countryside with the bustling heat of the city. Lee Chang-dong’s direction is superbly self assured.
Burning is a very affecting and beautifully made thriller that plays with audience expectations by daring us to doubt them. A tense and thoughtful experience.