Burning was a film that I wasn’t able to see at my local film festival when it played there last Autumn, so I absolutely had to go and see it when I saw it got a limited release.
A slow paced and methodical thriller from Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, Burning certainly isn’t for those wanting breakneck action. Starring Yoo Ah-in as Lee Jong-su a young man who strikes up a friendship with an old school mate Shin Hae-mi, played by Jeon Jong-seo, when she asks him to feed her cat whilst she goes on a trip to Africa. He is visibly perturbed when she returns with Ben a charming and well off man, played by Steven Yeun.
This was my first experience of a Lee Chang-dong film, so I didn’t have a clue what to expect when I went in. What we got from Burning was a thriller filled with a level of unease and uncomfortableness, even though you cannot put your finger on anything wrong until a significant portion of the way through the film, and that is all down to Chang-dong’s superb directions.
Even though the film is slow, choosing to spend time on the three central character’s interactions than typical tense thriller sequences, you never really feel bored. The only time Burning really wavered for me was into the final third when some of the momentum was lost after a major turning point in the film, although it does regain it by the end, with a finale that much like the film is understated, but fitting.
The three central performances are big part of keeping Burning engaging, as they are excellent. Yoo Ah-in Is awkward, and a perfect representation for the beatdown and used working class youth of Korea. He is perfectly juxtaposed against Steven Yuen’s cold yet charming representation of the more affluent and rich parts of Korean society.
And that class distinction is a constant thread running through the film. With Jong-Su and Hae-Mi’s home town with its run down rural communities contrasted to the swank and lovely neighbourhood Ben lives in, as well as their money struggles compared to his inexplicable wealth despite it never being clear what he does for work.
Burning is certainly a different type of thriller. It eschews the usual plot twists and turn that you may find in Western thrillers for a more cerebral and mesmerising atmosphere that actually adds to the level of unease that Chang-dong manages to inject into the film.