There’s a moment in Lee Chang-dong’s new film BURNING in which Steven Yeun’s character, Ben, is describing his favorite hobby to Jong-su and how it makes him feel. He says that his heart beats so loudly that it makes every bone in his body ring.
This vivid image is, in a way, an appropriate analogy for what it feels like to witness the unfolding of events in this compelling drama.
BURNING introduces its audience to Lee Jong-su – a recent college graduate who aspires to write fiction. While working part-time, he has a chance encounter with Shin Hae-mi, a childhood neighbor and classmate who he doesn’t remember at first. The two immediately share a connection and Jong-su even agrees to watch her cat while she’s away on a trip to Africa.
While picking her up from the airport after her trip, Jong-su is surprised to see that she’s not alone. She introduces him to Ben, a mysterious man she met during her trip. Ben is wealthy and confident, whereas Jong-su grew up in a poor village and lacks social skills. Ben’s sudden appearance into Jong-su’s life not only causes an upset in his relationship with Hae-mi, but it also begins to change his own life in sinister and unforeseeable ways.
To spoil any more of the plot would be doing a disservice to those interested in this film, as BURNING is as organic and elegantly crafted as the best mysteries. It exudes the personality of an epic, yet feels precious and intimate. Each of these characters is so authentically brought to life by their respective performers that each relationship, as well as the evolution of the narrative as a whole, effortlessly engrosses the viewer from the get-go. They each possess flaws and idiosyncrasies that not only make them well-rounded characters, but also thematically enhance the plot. It’s not until the credits roll that earlier scenes and ideas begin to fully make sense in the context of the film.
Of course, a great cinematic story is enhanced by its technical merit, which the film excels at. There are some truly breathtaking images on display that are made even more impressive by the film’s generous supply of long takes. The soundtrack is effectively atmospheric as well, but also economically utilized as to not wear thin too soon. It’s undeniable that serious effort and consideration was involved in the making of BURNING; it’s palpable.
If BURNING is guilty of anything, it’s a few minor instances in which character actions feel as if they exist to further the action. Given the calculated nature of the genre as well as the film’s emphasis on character development, this could be considered forgivable, but it may leave some scratching their heads. Considering the film’s grand accomplishments, the few flaws that are visible are rather insignificant in scale.
BURNING competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It was also selected as the South Korean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards.