Steeped in literary reference and languorously paced, Burning is an unlikely suspense thriller light on thrills that works far better than it should. And that’s because South Korean director Lee Chang-dong knows exactly what he’s doing as he parses out his story beats with methodical precision and meticulous emotional accuracy, tightening the screws incrementally on a trio of carefully crafted characters until the film’s inexorable final conflict feels less like catharsis than compulsory conclusion. Yet given the sense of the unavoidable that hangs over the entirety of Burning’s lengthy running time, there remains a surprising degree of tension that continues to mount right up to the final frames, a slow burn that leaves its ashes smoldering long after the credits roll.
While any burning going on here may well be of the decidedly slow variety, it’s compelling nonetheless. When a young creative writing major from a rural village near the North Korean border runs into a manic pixie dream girl that he knew as a child, sparks fly, and it seems he’s found a girlfriend at last — at least until she returns from a trip to Kenya with a wealthy playboy in tow. From there, things get progressively more awkward before taking a turn into darker territory as it becomes increasingly evident that everything’s not quite right with her new friend. When she goes missing, it falls to our hapless Faulkner fan to figure out what happened.
If the film’s conclusion feels like something of an anticlimax, it’s no less gratifying for its predictability. The desultory character arc of its protagonist, weak-willed wannabe writer-turned-detective Jong-soo (Yoo Ah-in), could justifiably be accused of bearing the hallmarks of a standard potboiler narrative, but Lee takes things in a decidedly unexpected direction as he introduces questions about the veracity of Jong-soo’s perception of events. With the disappearance of love interest Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), all signs point to the slimily superficial Ben (Steven Yeun) as the only obvious suspect. But Lee toes the line carefully enough that doubt is cast on Jong-soo’s very sanity, leading the audience to question whether or not Hae-mi existed in the first place, as well as just how much of a threat Ben actually poses.
By the time the third-act climax rolls around, that ambiguity is thoroughly dispelled, and this pat resolution is Burning’s greatest shortcoming. But the depth of characterization Lee and co-writer Oh Jung-mi achieve is laudable, and the director’s stylistic flourishes occasionally approach the abstraction one might expect of an atypically restrained David Lynch. And even the more predictable aspects of the plot are employed to subvert genre expectations, not unlike the Coens did with the P.I. archetype in The Big Lewbowski — only here the ill-fated investigator is a 20-something quasi-virgin rather than a stoned slacker. Burning may not quite live up to either of those comparisons — or its Haruki Murakami source material — but in its best moments, it doesn’t fall as short as one might expect. It’s certainly not going to be the hot ticket of the holiday season, but if you’re looking for a thoughtfully composed mystery with an emotional core more twisted than its plot, you’ll likely warm to Burning.