This stunning, slow-build thriller from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong sizzles with a cumulative power that will knock the wind out of you. Burning starts like a romance in the manner of The Talented Mr. Ripley as poor boy Jongsu, an aspiring writer played by Yoo Ah-in, falls under the spell of Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), a free spirit in skimpy attire who hawks products on the streets. He doesn’t recall that they were once school chums; she remembers that he called her “ugly” back then. Jongsu is stuck in the country taking care of the ramshackle farm near the North Korean border owned by his quick-tempered father, who’s been arrested on an assault charge against a neighbor. But after the couple have sex in her small apartment, he is so taken with the young woman that he agrees to take care of her cat, Boil (she found him in a boiler room), while she vacations in Africa to feed her “great hunger” for life experience. Visiting Haemi’s apartment every day, Jongsu masturbates while staring out her window at a wider world that seems beyond his means.
It seems like a small-scale story of two young dreamers — until makes an abrupt gear shift when he arrives at the airport to pick up Haemi only to find her in close company with Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich, handsome playboy she met abroad. The hotshot drives a Porsche and casually mentions his occupation isn’t work but “play.” Intoxicated by the perfume of Ben’s lifestyle, Jongsu finds himself in a competition in which this unfailingly polite and generous new friend seems to hold all the cards. So what if Haemi says he’s the only she can trust — Ben can feed her great hunger. They pay a surprise visit to his dad’s farm, where they smoke weed and the young woman dances naked outdoors. “Only whores do that,” snaps the jealous Jongsu. Later, while she’s asleep, Ben confesses that he does have a vice. He likes to torch greenhouses for the sheer pleasure of watching them burn.
What happens next is something audiences should discover on their own, except to say that suspicions are aroused, someone goes missing and Jongsu goes looking to for answers. Lee and co-writer Oh Jung-mi have adapted their script from Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, which not coincidentally is the title of a 1939 story by William Faulkner, the protagonist’s professed favorite writer. The ensuing game of cat-and-mouse creates shivers of suspense. But Lee is not asking audiences to sit for two and a half hours to watch a whodunit. Burning ignites themes of family, class, envy, crime, rough justice and what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” With invaluable help from cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, editors Kim Hyun and Kim Da-won, composer Mowg and trio of stellar performances, Lee has crafted a hypnotic and haunting film that transcends genre to dig deep into the human condition. You won’t be able to get it out of your head.