In a way, it would be a shame to let any review of Burning, the new film by South Korean director Lee Chang-dong, say anything about the plot. The movie begins with the camera following a young man down a city street, and it’s best to walk in blind and follow along. Watch where it goes in texture, theme, and even genre. A social-realist snapshot of a lost generation? A straight-up thriller in the making? The sort of “existential mystery” Antonioni might have made if his films were informed by anger instead of ennui?
Burning, taken from a short story by Haruki Murakami and turned into a 150-minute smolder, synthesizes all of the above remarkably well. The young man is Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), scraping by on odd jobs and moving through life like a sleepwalker. He is chronically underemployed and has few social attachments. He claims to be an aspiring writer, though despite his ample downtime, he doesn’t use any of it to write. But off the street comes Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman who works as a sales model for a local store and swears she knows him from their childhood. When he doesn’t recognize her, she says she got plastic surgery. (“Aren’t I prettier now?” she asks, and the question is bashfully proud). She seems to remember the details of their past far better than he does—including, she notes suddenly, that he used to treat her with arrogant disregard. But it’s not long before she’s invited him back to her apartment and into her bed.
There is a strange, almost amnesiac numbness to Jong-su, just as when we look at Hae-mi (through him), pieces of her seem to be missing. Is she harboring an old crush on him? Toying with him? Is everything she says even true? Or is imbuing her with any mystery at all simply a way of misunderstanding an unfailingly sincere person? It’s a hook, and not the last for a film whose great strength is what it leaves unspoken, unspecified, or handled indirectly, while its passion coalesces with the direction of a jab to the gut. When Hae-mi goes away on a trip and returns with the enigmatic Ben (Steven Yeun), a modern playboy with a Westernized name and money flowing in from some unknown source, the tension is set for a disquieting love triangle. It begins with a baseline of suspicion and jealousy and heads into increasingly sinister territory.
What emerges is a portrait of a system—one with a smiling face, a friendly surface, and an eerie normalcy—that can swallow things up and leave hardly a trace. It’s not hard to decode Burning as a work of social criticism. In fact, the broad strokes are there in the title: simply watch what gets burned and what doesn’t. But broad strokes don’t do justice to the wrinkles of a murder story that so shrewdly and emotionally plays with the very definition of the word. It is a rich and atmospheric film, sustained in its intrigue, attentive to its characters (especially its heroine), tinged with narrative abstraction around the edges, and taking the time to let the full extent of its ambiguities, anxieties, and most of all sadness seep under your skin. The end of the hero’s writer’s block comes in tandem with an act of violence, as if both are floodgates that open at once. And for all that’s unsettled in the film, that parallel may be the only concrete answer you need—even if Lee is old enough, or smart enough, to steep it in weary, mournful uncertainty. At American arthouses, where movies like this are liable to pull off disappearing acts of their own, Burning is not to be missed. It is one of the best of 2018.
Burning won the Critics’ Prize at Cannes and is South Korea’s submission for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar. It had a preview screening at the Aero in Santa Monica tonight and opens on Friday in select theaters.