Review: Burning (2018) – A very slow but genuinely compelling mystery drama

burning beoning 2018 korean movie still

Burning 버닝 (Beoning)

Movie review

For those who enjoy slow-paced mystery dramas that truly provoke thoughts with the right level of ambiguity, South Korea’s Burning is one of the must-watch films of the year for you. The film competed in the 2018 Cannes Film Festival where it won the FIPRESCI Prize, Vulcan Award and was also nominated for the highest prize, Palme d’Or. However, it is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.

Directed and co-written by multiple award-winner and former South Korea Minister of Culture and Tourism Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, Secret Sunshine, Peppermint Candy), Burning follows a lonesome young man named Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) who bumps into a casual, carefree girl named Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) who’s an apparent childhood neighbour and former classmate that he cannot clearly remember. They begin spending time together in between their odd jobs. One day, she returns from her trip accompanied by a stranger named Ben (Steven Yeun) who’s wealthier and despite having many friends, he keeps hanging out with Hae-mi and Jong-su. Jong-su feels jealous and inferior to Ben. After a while, Hae-mi disappears and is unable to be contacted. Jong-su suspects Ben has done something to her and begins his own investigation.

The film is based on a 1983 Japanese short story by novelist Haruki Murakami called Barn Burning, which is the same title as William Faulkner’s 1939 work. Although Murakami and Faulkner’s stories are completely unrelated and different from one another, Faulkner and actual barn-burning are used as subjects and probable metaphors in the characters’ conversations in the film.

steven yeun burning beoning 2018 korean film still

Burning is a the type of film that’s designed to place clues with uncertainties throughout the story and engages audiences to constantly feel suspicious of every character and questioning everything, even before the main mystery begins. The film is also a situational character study, exploring themes of human relationship, obsession, jealousy, social class and sexual deprivation, and what all that could affect a person. It’s just effectively full of mystery and suspense that does not ever spoon-feed the audience with a clear answer.

The film has an unsettling, tension-driving atmosphere with highly compelling performances by the three main actors. Yoo Ah-in (Veteran, The Throne) does very well portraying the relatable and engaging protagonist Jong-su. As a Walking Dead fan, it’s also fun to see Korean-American Steven Yuen playing Ben, a role that’s completely different from the TV series’ nice Asian guy character Glenn. Newcomer Jeon Jong-seo, too, does more than just offering a topless pair of eye candies. All three of them needed to be capable of giving their respective characters a lot of depth and being believable in long single-shot scenes while maintaining the suspense, and they nailed it.

While it does feel thoroughly mysterious and realistic, the film is almost two-hours-thirty-minutes long and its pacing is extremely slow. It’d require a lot of patience sit through until the very end and I have to admit that even though the film is highly compelling, I was checking my watch a few times before the drama gradually turns into a gripping thriller in the final act. The ending is somewhat surprising but I thought I wasn’t satisfied with it until I started recalling the earlier scenes and dialogues, and realised that the answer to the mystery may not be as straight-forward as it seems and the film ends the way it does because it’s open to interpretation. I had even more fun after the film, analysing the characters to form my own judgment and putting the pieces together to figure out what’s more likely to be right and wrong. And that’s what I enjoyed most about Burning.

What I would’ve named the film: “Slow Burning”

Malaysian censorship: There is a sex scene, a few acts of masturbation and another topless scene so I would assume at least a few of those will be edited in some way or completely cut, especially if it’s somehow rated P13 here. If these scenes were completely cut, it might ruin the film’s narrative a bit.

Verdict: A rewarding film for those with a lot of patience and love for mystery.

Rating: 4 / 5

burning 2018 movie poster keyart malaysiaCountry / Language: South Korea / Korean
Based on: “Barn Burning” short story by Haruki Murakami

Genre: Mystery drama
Running Time: 149 minutes
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Screenwriters: Oh Jung-mi, Lee Chang-dong
Cast: Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, Jeon Jong-seo

Malaysia Release Date: 2 August 2018 (GSC International Screens only)
Rated: P13
Local Distributor: GSC Movies
Production: Pinehouse Film, Now Film, NHK

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