Lee Chang-dong’s latest work Burning is the type of slow burn film that is both deceptive and exhilarating. The film is a thriller that feels anything but at first. It calmly lures viewers into its dramatic rhythms as it navigates issues of relationships and social class. Only once one is fully immersed in the world that Burning begins to disrobe and reveal its shocking true form.
One day, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) unexpectedly runs into childhood friend Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo). Bonding over memories of their hometown the two become rather close to the point where Jong-su wonders if there might be a meaningful romance in their future. He even agrees to stop by Hae-mi’s place to feed her cat, who he never actually sees, while she takes a trip to Africa.
Excited to pick up where they left off before her trip, Jong-su is shocked to see that Hae-mi return from her excursion with a new friend, Ben (Steven Yeun), whom she met while overseas. Unlike Jong-su who drives a beat-up truck and works odd jobs, Ben cruises around in a Porsche and oozes success despite not having an actual job. Ben is what locals would consider a Gatsby, a Korean who probably inherited his wealth, but no one knows for sure.
Immediately threatened by the presence of Hae-mi’s new friend, Jong-su suspicion of Ben grows when the latter admits to having a rather unusual hobby of burning greenhouses.
As Jong-su becomes obsessed with solving the mysterious Rubik’s cube that is Ben, the tension in Lee Chang-dong’s film begins to ramp up. One of the beautiful aspects of Burning is the way, much like Jong-su himself, the viewer is lead left without realizing they should have been looking right. The film is so meticulously constructed that its clues are hiding in plain sight.
Weaving in a subtle commentary about class and privilege, while simultaneously building up a rich dark mystery Burning is a marvel. While the performances are strong by the entire cast, it is Steven Yeun who steals the show. Yeun is magnetic as Ben, effortless shifting between charming and calculating depending on the situations. He manages to make even the simplest thing, such as when Ben gives Jong-su a smirk while Hae-mi performs an African dance, rich with layered meaning.
Don’t be fooled by the film’s languid pacing, Burning is one of the year’s best films. It offers a taut and thrilling mystery that you will be talking about for days.