Slow, meandering & a tad overlong, Burning takes its time to set up its premise and can be a chore to sit through if one isn’t invested in the characters’ journey but it also rewards the viewers’ patience with a twisting finale that’s ambiguous enough to keep them pondering about it long after the credits have rolled.
The story follows a young boy who runs into an old acquaintance one day and after catching up with her, decides to look after her cat while she’s on a trip to Africa. When she comes back, she introduces him to a mysterious guy she met during her trip who then at a later meeting confesses his strange hobby to him.
Co-written & directed by Lee Chang-dong (best known for Peppermint Candy), the film is far too relaxed during the first act and introduces the characters with a laxness that doesn’t create any sort of intrigue about them. It is only during the middle portion after the unusual secret is shared that a dark mystery begins to encapsulate the drama.
The script ruminates on themes of longing, loneliness, unemployment & lack of purpose among today’s youth but it may take more than one viewing to discern how they play a part in this film’s final outcome. Though the mystery regarding the fate of a key character only intensifies as plot progresses, the protagonist is not compelling enough to make us care.
The slow, silent & methodical camerawork allows for better examination of each segment, including the trivial ones that don’t appear trivial once you reflect on them after sitting through the whole picture. The long takes bring their own uneasy vibe into the mix. Pacing is what’s going to divide many, for its runtime is severely felt at times but it’s less of an ordeal during the second half.
The trio of characters are played by Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo & Steven Yeun and while there’s an enigma surrounding all three of them, it’s Yeun who embodies it best as the guy who shows up in the middle of a budding romance between two friends. The story offers several possibilities & motivations for what transpires in the end yet not enough evidence to clear out every single doubt.
On an overall scale, Burning is a slow-burning mystery that asks for the viewers’ patience throughout its runtime but it’s certainly not a film that every viewer will enjoy. While I do admire its narrative structure & Lee’s quiet approach to a dark subject matter, I also won’t deny that its glacial pace & tedious first half almost made me turn it off, not to mention that there is nothing about the protagonist that makes him worthy of interest. An esoteric, elusive & equivocal psychological drama mystery that viewers may benefit from multiple viewings, Burning is a South Korean thriller unlike most South Korean thrillers.