Nothing about Burning is certain except that it haunts the mind long after the credits conclude. Though Lee Chang-dong’s latest film may have not have collected any award recognition at Cannes, it was surely the strongest feature I had the privilege to see during my time there. True to its title, Burning is indeed a slow burn, a dense psychological thriller that equally balances paranoid intrigue and muted rage across its lengthy 148-minute runtime. It’s quite notable that despite this daunting time commitment, and contrary to its seeming fascination with mundane detail, the film is never dull for a moment.
Yoo Ah-in plays Jong-su, a sexually frustrated aspiring writer who agrees to watch the cat of a long lost childhood acquaintance, Hai-mi (Jun Jong-seo), while she is abroad. In the short time before her departure, Jong-su becomes impossibly infatuated with the girl, making her eventual disappearance all the more intensely obsessive for him. Hai-mi returns from her trip with a new friend, the affluent and suave Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), before vanishing into thin air “like a puff of smoke”.
From spending time with Ben, a darker, narcissistic side emerges from his outwardly harmless, energetic playboy personality. He compares cooking to preparing a sacrificial tribute to himself. He is amused rather than sympathetic when Hai-mi cries, claiming to have never shed a tear himself. Ben wears the aloof attitude of a wealthy person laughing boredly at the lower class, opening up sinister possibilities into his true character as well as a strong envious resentment from Jong-su.
Steven Yeun is a surprisingly perfect casting for the role, and this is by far his strongest performance to date. Perhaps he owes some of his confidence as Ben to his honest looks which, when juxtaposed with a sinister tonal undercurrent, make even the most benign acts of smiling and yawning appear unsettlingly staged in context. Regardless, I never would have imagined that the sheepish Glenn from The Walking Dead could play someone so formidably chilling, but it’s a promising sign that Yeun has a wide variety of roles open to him in the future.
As if in opposition to the exploitative excesses on display in fellow Korean thrillers like Oldboy or I Saw the Devil, Burning works remarkably hard to divorce itself from gratuitous violence, making the rare outburst horrifically memorable. In place of violence, narrative ambiguity drives the tension. In a superficial kind of way, Burning is tonally reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s oppressively overcast Caché. Within both films, the entire sense of dread lies in their ambiguity, and the uncomfortable uncertainty that swims just below the murky surface of their many clues and metaphors. Both films are anti-mysteries, tearing the focus from plot development and redirecting it instead onto how their characters react to new information. The story unfolds in front of a foggy lens, and any hope of viewing a clear picture is futile.
Though Burning does choose to follow some of the banality of Jong-soo’s life, these seemingly insignificant details all add to a trickling sense of immersive isolation as he searches for Hai-mi. Each frame of Hong Kyung-pyo’s mysterious cinematography is painted cleanly and true to life, yet isn’t without a formalistic sensibility for stunning cinematic beauty. Long takes are frequently revisited and to varying effect. While one particularly tightly-framed shot is used to capture the flowing intimacy of a sexual encounter, another watches a scene of startling violence from a cool distance. The lighting and color work are also grounded, occasionally pausing for breaks from realism to reflect on the emotions of a scene, as in one hypnotizing long take of Hai-mi dancing topless in an emotional marijuana daze against a flaming orange sunset and Lynchian blues.
The music matches the cinematography’s insistence on saving emphasis for worthy scenes, making its rare presence known by a handful of harsh staccatos like tiny exclamation points against the silent canvas. Though a stricter realist director like Haneke would impose an outright ban on nondiegetic sound, Lee Chang-dong’s creative choice to not do so here doesn’t sacrifice much of that cutting intensity. If anything, this reserved use of music only complements and strengthens the film’s nail-bitingly thick tone.
In any effective thriller, the use of suspense is comparable to wandering around a dark room before finding the light switch. No one wants to leave the theater without turning on the light, or at the very least finding a doorknob to signify a possible exit. Tension is a fleeting emotion, and often not a particularly satisfying one if played superficially. Many classic thrillers, such as those of Hitchcock, often explode with startling revelations in their culminating sequences. Burning does not: it implodes, collapsing in on itself as bleakly and hauntingly as its rain-soaked South Korean landscape. Its finale is shockingly visceral, and maybe even unexpected, but feels tragically inevitable if you’ve been paying attention. Burning is without a doubt among the strongest films I saw at Cannes, and my lack of previous experience with Lee Chang-dong’s work is a mistake in desperate need of remedy.