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Burning Movie Review

New South Korean Film Burns into Your Memory

Lee Chang-dong's "Burning" is a beautiful, swirling tornado of contradictions: it's languid but thrilling, mysterious but focused, small in scale but expansive in its ideas. The movie provides no easy answers and leaves its conclusion somewhat open, inviting some interpretation from the audience. It may be frustrating for some, but "Burning" quietly sears into your mind and won't leave for long after the movie is over.

As the movie opens, we meet Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an unassuming deliveryman and aspiring author. He bumps into Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who he doesn't recognize, but she reminds him that they used to know each other when they were kids. They catch up over some food and Hae-mi informs Jong-su she is going to Africa and needs him to watch her cat. When he asks her if he should bring the cat to his place, Hae-mi insists he checks in on the cat at her apartment. Something is up early on in "Burning," because we never see the cat once on screen. Is Hae-mi lying about having a cat?

Jong-su goes to her apartment and fills the food bowl but can never seem to locate the cat. He has clearly fallen for Hae-mi in the short amount of time they've become reacquainted and is eager to help her in any way. When she returns from Africa, she calls Jong-su to pick her up from the airport, which he is happy to do until he sees she has returned with Ben (Steven Yeun), a new boyfriend she met while abroad.

Something doesn't sit right with Jong-su about Ben. He's young, drives a Porsche, and lives in a nice apartment. It's never clear what he does for a living, only responding with "To put it simply, I play," when Jong-su asks what he does for work. As Jong-su's suspicion of Ben rises, a more overt mystery element of the film occurs and Jong-su is determined to find the answer.

"Burning" was adapted into a sprawling 148-minute movie from the short story "Barn Burning" by Haruki Murakami and it uses every moment to great effect. The movie isn't designed as a thriller but it slowly evolves into one as it progresses, carving itself into the viewer's mind without much notice. There are stretches of time when "Burning" might appear uneventful but Chang-dong sprinkles subtle hints throughout. Before you know it, "Burning" will have you in a trance, playing like a quiet fever dream you won't want to shake.

The film's title is given meaning about halfway through the film when Ben reveals one of his main interests. As portrayed by Yeun, Ben speaks softly and with no theatrics but Yeun imbues the character with a chilly aloofness. When Ben and Jong-su open up to each other a bit after some drinks and a little pot, Yeun delivers a monologue that will chill you to the bone. It's a pitch-perfect demonstration of finding restraint in a performance and still being able to evoke a great deal of emotion.

The beauty of "Burning" is how small it can feel in scope but how rich it is thematically. Amidst a central mystery and air of uncertainty, "Burning" is a fascinating character study about class, greed, guilt, and jealously and how characters are driven by each of these. Ah-in anchors the film with an impressive balancing act of a performance as Jong-su tries to become his own person and forge a career but is haunted by memories from his past.

Chang-dong refuses to feed us the whys and hows of "Burning" and how it should all work because, frankly, there is no right answer. He has given us this gorgeous canvas to work with and allows everything to unfold at its own pace while we try to piece everything together. In the end, "Burning" is whatever we want it to be, and it's so gratifying when a director trusts his audience that much.

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