Review: 'Burning' quietly lights a fire

South Korean thriller is one of the year's best films

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Ah-in Yoo, Jong-seo Jun and Steven Yeun in 'Burning."

Lee Chang-dong's "Burning" will leave you breathless.

The South Korean thriller is so stealthy that it doesn't act like or present itself as a thriller. Instead, it skillfully weaves a tale so layered in its mysteries that it casually constricts itself around you, and by the time you come up for air, you realize you can't. 

Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a working-class farmer's son in Paju, South Korea. He runs into an old classmate of his, Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), whom he used to pick on when they were younger. He barely remembers, she remembers vividly. They connect, and she asks him to take care of her cat while she vacations in Africa. 

When she returns, she's joined by Ben (Troy native Steven Yeun), a well-to-do, Porsche-driving playboy-type. The three of them begin a fraught friendship, with undercurrents of jealousy from a romantic and social standpoint; Lee doesn't understand the nature of Ben and Shin's relationship, which slowly eats away at him, and is exacerbated by Ben's cool-headed emotional distance. When Shin disappears, his madness consumes him. 

"Burning" is a true slow burn; Chang-dong (who also co-wrote the script) does a masterful job laying out his trail of breadcrumbs without ever giving away the full loaf. 

He's aided by a trio of wonderful performances; Yeun, especially, gives a seering, slick, haunting performance that is among the year's very best. And Jong-seo's beguiling sunset dance, set to Miles Davis' "Générique," paints a lasting visual, invoking politics, class strife, sexuality and human connection, all set against a colorful sky and a fading sun. Like "Burning," it's unforgettable.




Not rated: Nudity, sexuality, violence

Running time: 148 minutes

At Cinema Detroit, State Theater —  Ann Arbor starting Tuesday