In the simplest summary, Burning is a thriller. It mingles mystery and menace in tracing the shifting, fraught relationships of three central characters. Motivations are elusive, mistrust swells, base human emotions emit low, ominous rumbles. Supposedly casual conversations gain greater import as time passes, and there are scattered artifacts of potential malfeasance — clues, if you will — calling into question every interaction and gesture. A simple yawn becomes a thunderclap. Director Lee Chang-Dong reveals the whirring mechanics the shrewd clarity of a modern-day Hitchcock while also gently probing at delicate moods, more in the manner of vintage Terrence Malick. The latter comparison provides insight to the qualities that set Burning apart. It adheres honestly and without condescension to its thriller trappings, and yet stealthily turns them inside out.
In the film, Jong-su (Yoo ah-in) falls for Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), encouraged out a cloistering introversion by the ways in which she sees past his antisocial oddity. She’s fairly noncommittal and the bright, exploratory traits that helped foster the initial connection make a freewheeling approach to romance almost inevitable. But Jong-su can’t see any of that, which leads to quiet devastation when Hae-mi returns from a trip with a new suitor, the confident Ben (Steven Yuen, billed as Yeun Sang-yeop). Loneliness, jealousy, thwarted lust — the hallmarks of dangerously damaged masculinity — converge in Jong-su, and those troublesome sensations are soon joined by suspicion. All of this is subtext and surface all at once, and then Lee pushes yet deeper.
The familiar currents of Burning are skimmed by a vessel sending out quite different sonar signals. With measured intensity, Lee finds the most pronounced anxiety in the existential trepidation of the story, the fiercely unknowable nature of people. All hold secrets, and, in repudiation of solidly established movie rules, there are no clicking puzzle boxes that dispense them into the light. Inner beings remain hidden, barriers stand firm, uncertainty prevails. Even the sharing of dark, forbidden thoughts is likely to provide no real answers, and maybe a slew of new permanent questions. Sharing is a performance, too.
Burning is a delicate piece of work, guided with vivid artistry by Lee. The cinematography, by Hong Kyung-pyo, is rapturous, and the other technical components are equally exemplary. And then there are the performances, which must register strongly while maintaining the veiled purpose that is the soul of the film. As in life, the characters make distinct first impressions, inviting certainty about who they are, and then reveal more details so gradually that it becomes difficult to discern when and how any perceptions about them shifted. Even turns that feel sudden were, in retrospect, signaled all along. It’s another way in which the film defies easy explanation. This is perhaps one exception to this strident, striking complexity, one manner is which the achievement of Lee’s work can be expressed in a few plain words: Burning is masterful.