Don’t be misled by the full-blaze promise of the title: Burning gives off a quieter kind of heat, sustaining nearly all of its two-and-a-half-hour run time at a sort of low, dangerous smolder. But Lee Chang-dong’s Korean-language thriller is even more unnerving for its muted execution — the kind of movie whose takeaways you could spend hours debating and still feel miles away from being sure of anything at all.
Based on a scant six-page story by Haruki Murakami, Burning stars Yoo Ah-In as Jong-su, an aspiring novelist seemingly unmoored in big-city Seoul until an old classmate from the countryside, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), offers a tether: her friendship, and maybe more. As sunny and openhearted as he is diffident, she quickly pulls him into her world of late-night beers and noodle shops, sex and travel plans. But when she returns from a solo trip to Africa with an inscrutable new friend in tow named Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), the dynamic shifts abruptly into a sort of tipped, uneasy triangle.
Who is Ben, with his spotless condo and Porsche Carrera? Jong-su compares him to Jay Gatsby, the slippery prince of a leisure class he seems to both envy and disdain: “They’re young and rich and you don’t know what they do.” You truly don’t, and it would be a spoiler to say much more about what follows — except that Yeun is spectacular, a smooth-skinned enigma with a smile like quicksand, and that Burning’s final searing scenes are as unforgettable as almost anything on film so far this year. A-