Where to start with this one? I’ve recently come up with a phrase for movies like “Burning”. I call them “Virus Movies”. No, I don’t mean a movie about some kind of virus infecting the world and destroying humanity. What I mean by virus is that the movie slowly infects your mind. You might not notice it at first, but after a while you realize you can’t stop thinking about it and eventually what you thought was mediocre or just fine becomes an obsession. The first time I ever experienced this was with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master”. When I saw “The Master”, I liked it, but thought it was on the lower end of Andersons filmography. After a few weeks, however, “The Master” still lingered in my mind until I finally surrendered and rewatched it. I’ve watched it several times since then and now it’s one of my all-time favorites. I also experienced it last year with the seductive and heartbreaking “Call Me by Your Name”. Now it’s happening again with “Burning”.
There aren’t many movies like “Burning”. What starts off as an exploration of middle class struggles and the frustration of trying to be writer slowly transforms into a thrilling suspense movie in a scene that will surely be talked about for years to come. At some point in this review I’m going to have to do this, so I’ll get it out of the way now. Burning is a slow burn (I’m sorry). A very, very slow burn. It was fascinating to see this movie patiently move from scene to scene without ever showing its hand. It uproots any kind of expectation one might have about a thriller.
The first half of the movie focuses on Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) as he goes from point A to point B, dealing with his fathers’ trial, taking care of the family farm and struggling to write. He meets Hae-Mi (Jong-seo Jun) and soon they have sex before she travels to Africa. When she returns with Ben (Steven Yeun in one of the most mesmerizing performances of the year) the three friends become close. One night they sit on Jong-Su’s patio as the sun goes down and it is here that the movie becomes an absolute masterpiece and is the main reason I can’t stop thinking about it. The conversation that Ben and Jong-Su have is so unsettling and understated. It almost doesn’t seem real as the sun sets and casts a dream like ambiance over the two men. The rest of the movie exists in the shadow of this scene. I’m not going to go into detail, because I think it’s most effective to experience this scene naturally, but the sense of dread and uncertainty that follows this scene are so extreme and palpable.
The three leads all put out excellent performances, but it’s really Steven Yeun that rules this movie. He plays this character with such calm and confidence that you really like the guy. Even after the pivotal scene that I can’t stop blabbering about makes you distrust him, Yeun is irresistible.
I wouldn’t blame you if you thought “Burning” was too slow or boing. It certainly doesn’t rush into anything, but that is precisely why it works so well. It does have a climax near the end, but even that scene is very patient and muted. I appreciate a movie that doesn’t require some crazy action sequence or excessive gore to get its point across and “Burning” does just that.