When Burning first opens, it seems like we’re in for a simple “Boy meets girl” story. But as soon as the girl calls for her cat that never appears, a small moment like that makes it clear that we’re in for a mind-bending, kaleidoscopic experience. It is quite brilliant but it’s still a movie that you have to try and decipher as it progresses even during the seemingly coherent parts of the storytelling.
The tale follows a normal day in the life of Lee Jong-Su (Yoo Ah-In) when he unexpectedly runs into Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-Seo), a former classmate and childhood friend. After they reunite and fall for one another, Hae-mi asks Lee to look after her cat while she goes away on a trip to Africa. But when she comes back after getting stuck in an airport, she returns with the very wealthy Ben (Steven Yeun). It isn’t known what Ben actually does for a living but it is clear that he has a mysterious penchant for fire.
The fire Ben craves is only one of the many meanings the title seems to possess. Burning could also refer to the luscious cinematography that captures the glowing sunsets that look like fires ablaze. Either that or the blissful passion that Lee feels for Hae-mi and possibly Ben as well. It’s not established but there are some likely homoerotic undertones present because of the way Lee gazes at Ben with Ben himself slyly submitting to Lee’s glances.
Again, it could all just be up to interpretation. But the slithery, sensual slyness of Ben is perfectly orchestrated by Steven Yeun. He also manages to walk a thin line between innocent bystander and possible antagonist with ease. It’s an incredibly three-dimensional performance that should be a much stronger factor in the Supporting Actor race. But in spite of that, Steven Yeun’s ability to take a character that is written as a cipher and make him into a layered characterization is definitive proof of his star power.
Initially, the film goes off to a nearly slow start. But once Steven Yeun shows up, that is when the mystery really begins to unfold because the aforementioned thin line he keeps walking on is what drives the narrative forward. Also, as previously mentioned, Yeun’s presence elevates the picture thanks to his effortless charisma.
Of course, credit should also go to newcomer Yoo Ah-In as Lee. Much like Steven Yeun, he has a thin line to cross as well. He does a flawless job at acting as an audience surrogate while hinting at layers of darkness whenever he’s smoking a hot cigarette. Come to think of it, the cigarettes our characters smoke as they’re hinting at their dark desires allow the title of Burning to have another potential meaning.
As if the film isn’t hauntingly ambiguous enough, the sound of bongo drums that echo over the picture during the more heightened dramatic moments only amps up the slight creep factor. The film is completely faint with its lack of a score but the drums heard in the background still manage to create an unsettling feeling.
An ambiguous mix of noir, eroticism, and psychological horror all rolled into one, Burning is an amazing, mind-bending experience that dares you to try and pick it apart. It is surely one of the best films of the year.