He's come a long way since The Walking Dead
Burning is a new South Korean mystery film (at least it’s new to the United States, given that it was technically released last May in South Korea) that comes from director Lee Chang-dong that’s sure to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards this year.
Roma is ultimately going to win said award, and rightfully so, but Burning is still the first Korean film to ever make the nomination shortlist in this category (not that you need even more of a reason to see it as all the Best Foreign Language Film nominees are always worth checking out regardless of their accomplishments or if they win).
Burning tells the story of Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) — a young, down-on-his-luck writer who hasn’t actually written anything yet but rather performs odd-jobs around South Korea for money.
That’s what he did do, at least, until he’s called back to the family farm. His father, an angry, stubborn man, has been sentenced to prison for quite some time, meaning that Jong-su now has to look after his property.
Jong-su isn’t exactly thrilled about this — his mother left the family a long time ago, meaning he’s going to be living up in the mountains by himself — but also doesn’t really have anything better to do, either.
He doesn’t stay lonely for too long, though.
By way of a chance encounter, Jong-su is visiting the city when he comes across his former neighbor, Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). The two of them were never too close to begin with and haven’t seen each other in quite some time now, which is partially why Jong-su is shocked to see that Hae-mi is now drop-dead gorgeous.
The two get to talking and decide to go out to dinner, then leading to the inevitable no-pants dance.
If only it could have lasted.
Before coming across Jong-su, Hae-mi has been planning a vacation to Africa for some time now. Jong-su doesn’t see this too big of a deal, at first — he’s left in charge of watching his new girlfriend’s cat while she’s gone, but it’ll only be for two weeks and then things will be back to normal.
Except, that’s not what happened. Hae-mi does go to Africa and then return two weeks later, yes, but she also returns back to South Korea with another guy — Ben (Yeun).
Ben is, in many ways, the exact opposite of Jong-su. He’s incredibly wealthy, which is made abundantly clear by his clothing, his car, his apartment and his accessories. He also seems to have a witty reply or comeback to just about anything, especially when he’s being questioned about what he does for a living (which he never gives any kind of answer to, either).
Jong-su is understandably confused by who Ben is and why he’s hanging around Hae-mi, and that confusion quickly turns to anger when he can’t get a moment alone with Hae-mi without Ben being there.
That anger, though, transformers into something else entirely when Jong-su begins to suspect there might be more to Ben than meets the eye — something that could be potentially sinister.
Which sounds like it should create a really interesting, intense mystery-box kind of film — which, at times, Burning is.
Burning is at its best when it’s playing into the uncomfortable scenario these three characters have found themselves in. The set-up the film, the mystery that it eventually evolves into and the overall creepiness being put forward by Yeun all build this solid, well thought-out drama with a few tricks up its sleeve.
Yeun, who's having a great year between this and Sorry to Bother You is easily the best part about Burning, too. His performance here is one that's not being talked about enough by critics and filmgoers.
I just don’t understand why it needed to be a 2 and a half hour film.
You could easily cut out a good thirty or forty minutes of Burning without harming the overall product. There are many, many scenes or subplots throughout the movie that just seems to drag on and on without really having a purpose.
I am, of course, well aware that pacing in foreign films is also different than American films. That’s not a bad thing or the reason I’m critiquing the movie — I’m all for a slower-paced film, which is why I was really digging the slow-burn that Burning was setting up in the first act.
At some point during the movie, though, I just began to lose interest because it was just taking so long to get to the point. It probably doesn’t help that I was able to solve the actual mystery long before it was revealed (which doesn’t detract too much from the movie but definitely doesn’t do it any favors, either), but the point is that there are significant chunks of Burning that should have been left on the editing room floor.
That being said, the moments that work in Burning really do play pretty well. The parts when they’re playing into the oddity of this situation and the characters' behavior (while I could predict a lot of the basic storyline, the way Jong-su or Ben reacted to certain things took me by surprise) is really quite compelling.
With additional good performances from Jeon Jong-seo and Yoo Ah-in and some beautiful cinematography, Burning could really have been something special if they brought this down to a 2-hour film (I’m of the mindset where a film rarely needs to be longer than that unless they have a really good reason as to why they should be).
Watch the trailer for Burning here and then let us know, in the comments below, what you thought of the film!
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