Burning simmers. For nearly two-and-a-half perfectly measured hours, it turns up the heat without boiling over: a drama becoming a thriller in slow motion, intensifying little by little minute by minute, until finally it reaches a shocking, powerful crescendo. True to its title, this film of multiple motifs and metaphors—literary in spirit but made with impeccable cinematic craft—is drawn to the flame; crackling infernos, some more symbolic than others, haunt the dreams, memories, and paranoid imagination of its main character. Burning, however, doesn’t rush combustion. Its maker, the South Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong, rarely rushes anything. This is his first movie in eight years. It rewards patience—of those who waited nearly a decade for another film by the gifted dramatist behind Poetry and Secret Sunshine, but also of anyone willing to sink into the protracted runtime of his latest, to follow its gradually blazing fuse to the explosive point of ignition.
The source material is a short story, “Burning Barns,” by the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Though he’s expanded upon the narrative (and relocated it to Korea), Lee has preserved its skeletal essence: the ambiguity, the keenly observed details of speech and behavior, the kind of potentially unreliable point-of-view Murakami so often favors. Said point of view belongs, in this case, to soft-spoken Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo), who works as a deliveryman in Paju but dreams of becoming a writer. His favorite author is William Faulkner, whose “Barn Burning,” an influence on Murakami’s story, has been subtly woven into the script, too—into its volatile emotional fabric, anyway. Feeding into the same is Jongsu’s early decision to move back to the family farm near the North Korean border, which he’ll look after while his father stands trial for assaulting a police officer.
Burning opens with an unexpected reunion, as the cash-strapped twentysomething runs into a face from his past, an old classmate from his hometown. The loopy and free-spirited Haemi (Jong-seo Jun) has aspirations of her own: Though she makes her living as a narrator model, luring customers into local businesses with her enthusiastic dance moves, she really wants to be an actress. (Her most developed talent is pantomime, which doesn’t require believing that she’s holding and peeling an orange so much as forgetting that she’s not.) The two fall into a casual romance, or maybe just a friends-with-benefits arrangement. Then Haemi embarks on a trip to Africa, leaving Jongsu to look after her cat. When she returns a few weeks later, it’s with someone new on her arm: the wealthy, confident Ben (Steven Yeun), who she met in the Nairobi airport.
“The Great Gatsby,” Jongsu privately dubs this cosmopolitan stranger, who approaches his exceptionally charmed life with perpetually amused nonchalance. When asked what he “does,” Ben replies, simply, “I play.” Compared to how Jongsu and Haemi make ends meet, that may be closer to the truth than not. You could call the relationship a kind of love triangle, except that Burning depicts it as fundamentally unbalanced—defined, at all times, by a vast chasm in privilege, the elephant in every room of Ben’s posh Seoul bachelor pad. Yeun, who portrayed the nicest guy of the post apocalypse on The Walking Dead, here breaks in a very different direction, adopting an air of supremely chillaxed arrogance. He’s boldly unlikable, but the role is trickier than a mere rich-dick caricature, hinging as it does on deeper questions of motive. Is there more than just a superiority complex lurking behind Ben’s perpetual smile?
Burning isn’t easily classified, either. So splendidly does it work as a bone-dry portrait of Korean class conflict that you might not notice, at first, its transformation into something more sinister—the way a confounding conversation about arson and a sudden disappearance sends Jongsu plummeting into minimalist noir, pulling threads and chasing hunches like an amateur detective. It’s here that the film’s deliberate pace really starts to pay off. Lee locks us into the investigative headspace of his protagonist, letting the meaning of certain discoveries and conversations and decisions reveal themselves over time. In place of clues, there are structural absences: a cat we don’t see; a drinking well that may not exist; an unseen somebody on the other end of a telephone line, calling and hanging up. What is Jongsu really searching for during his entwined investigations? Perhaps it’s a deeper meaning—what Haemi calls the “Great Hunger,” as opposed to the “Little Hunger” of pure paycheck-to-paycheck survival.
Lee, who cowrote the script with Jung-mi Oh, specializes in stories that unfold slowly and meticulously, through multiple subplots and sometimes close-to-invisible psychological shifts. He’s outdone himself with Burning, whose every scene feels designed to propel Jongsu one step closer to a fiery, perhaps unavoidable destination. Flights of dream-state fantasy occasionally corrupt the carefully cultivated naturalism, and Lee strays from plot concerns to fixate on perplexingly significant details, like a narrow beam of light, reflecting off a tower in the distance and striking a small spot on the wall of Haemi’s tiny efficiency. He finds room, too, in this mostly austere and unshowy drama, for the occasional flourish, each designed to throw a magnifying glass over whatever’s raging inside this pent-up introvert. There is, for example, a topless, stoned dance to Miles Davis in the dusk light—the film’s most indelible image—that seems to crystalize all of Jongsu’s longing, jealousy, and unarticulated frustration.
Students of Chekhovian foreshadowing may not be surprised, exactly, by how Burning’s stewing tensions bubble into climax. What makes the ending so disturbingly resonant is the way it taps a particularly timely wellspring of resentment—working-class, certainly, but also explicitly male, and tinged with a paranoia that leads perhaps inexorably to violence. There’s also the tricky matter of what we know and what we only think we know. As the missing puzzle pieces fall into place and the “evidence” mounts, Lee would seem to leave no doubt as to how we’re meant to interpret events. But the film’s subjectivity, the way it strays only once from the radius of this doggedly driven, quietly desperate character, throws the reliability of every conclusion drawn—by Jongsu and by the audience—under suspicion. Have our worst fears been confirmed or is it just confirmation bias? Maybe there’s a lesson in Haemi’s pantomime: Once you convince yourself something’s there, it’s hard to believe that it’s not.