Thereís something to be said for the slow burn. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of it. Stanley Kubrick too. Itís an art that has been mostly lost in modern cinema. Most writers and directors go for fast-paced suspense with multiple twists. Donít get me wrong, I like a good film with a quick pace and a well-placed plot twist, but films with a good slow burning mystery are few and far between. ĎBurningí is one such film.
The film opens innocuously enough: Jong-su is making a delivery in Seoul, where he bumps into a former classmate, Hae-mi, and they hit it off. When Hae-mi goes on a trip to Africa, she asks Jong-su to watch her cat. When she gets back, sheís accompanied by Ben, a wealthy Korean. But not all is what it seems with Ben, or Hae-mi for that matter.
That may not sound like the setup to a tension-building mystery, but there are two things the film has going for it: the fantastic direction of Lee Chang-dong and the performance of Steven Yeun. Thereís a reason I mentioned Alfred Hitchcock earlier; thereís really no better way to describe Leeís direction than Hitchcockian. A sense of unease permeates every scene. And as the film is largely from Jong-suís perspective, the audience is forced to question what is going on with the other characters. The slow pace of the film amplifies this; each piece of the puzzle that he discovers weighs on him, and us as well. Each scene has a tension to it, and the plot moves just fast enough to keep things going. Itís a very delicate balance, and Lee nails it.
Of course, it helps that Steven Yeun is playing Ben, who I suppose is the antagonist of the film. Itís never really clear what Ben does throughout the film, but as Jong-su is fixated on him, itís hard not to share his viewpoint. Yeun takes full advantage of this. Ben is arrogant, a borderline sociopath, but also has a certain charm that Hae-mi is clearly drawn to. Heís like Jay Gatsby with his apathy dial up a few notches. Yeun plays him with a certain relaxed iciness thatís hard to convey. Heís a unique character but also a reflection of Jong-suís outlook. Again, itís a tough balance, but he nails it. And when you consider how Jong-su and Ben represent how the poor look at the upper class of Korea (and letís be honest, the world), you realize that this is truly a brilliant film.+4