Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) has writers block. A creative writing graduate working a part-time job as he waits for inspiration to strike, his life is without direction when he runs into Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), a lively former schoolmate who ropes him into looking after her elusive cat while she takes a trip to Africa. When she returns with new friend Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) in tow, Jong-su gets a glimpse into the fashionable life of wealthy Koreans, but soon he begins to realise that not everything about Ben seems to add up…
Loosely based on a short story by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Burning is far from your average drama, or your average mystery, or your average thriller… For starters, it isn’t clear that it is any one of those things at all for a rather long stretch of time – we follow Jong-su’s rather mundane life, and his banal interactions with Hae-mi and Ben, for what seems like half the film before we are finally presented with anything resembling much of a plot. This wouldn’t be such a problem if the time were spent giving us insight into the characters, but both Jong-su and Hae-mi remain frustratingly underdeveloped, meaning there is little to make the audience care about their fates later in the film.
The film picks up in the latter half, its main strength being the various interwoven mysteries that haunt its protagonist: Hae-mi’s disappearance, Ben’s strange hobby, the odd phone calls Jong-su has been receiving. The slow pace that had become so tiresome in the early parts of the movie here work to build the tension and signify Jong-su’s confusion and loss at his inability to understand what is going on. But those who like a satisfying conclusion to their movie mysteries should be warned, Burning is not a film willing to provide any solutions to the riddles it presents. Whether this deliberate ambiguity works is likely a matter of taste, but it is hard not to feel that the abrupt, inconclusive ending would be easier to stomach had the film not spent so much time on unnecessary filler earlier on.
In truth, the extent to which Burning will satisfy its audience depends largely on the relative importance each viewer places on a story’s plot and its tone. Detached, mysterious, and intentionally disorienting, the film captures perfectly the sense of the uncanny, the feeling that not everything is as it seems, or should be, and encourages – or compels – the audience to question everything from Ben’s intentions to Jong-su’s sanity. Nonetheless, it is hard not to feel the film is dragged down by an overlong first act and characters too bland to be compelling. Neither the masterpiece it aims to be nor the failure it could have been in the hands of a lesser director, Burning is a film that will split audiences, but whether from frustration or awe, it is one that will linger in the mind for some time after the credits roll.
Burning opens in UK cinemas on 1st February 2019.