Runner-up as best film of the year at this week’s Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards, Burning follows an initially uncomplicated young man named Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), a poor South Korean farmer in his early 20s whose mother deserted the family 16 years earlier and whose father is in jail on some disturbing charges. Jong-su does odd jobs to get by and thereby bumps into Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), a girl who used to live in his village. They connect, then she leaves for a trip to Africa, during which Jong-su house-sits her apartment in the city.
On her return, Hae-mi introduces Jong-su to Ben (Steven Yeun), a mysterious and cosmopolitan guy she met in Africa. Ben is rich, and may or may not be lovers with Hae-mi, who has secrets of her own. He speaks in philosophical ellipses, often seeming to bait the people around him, and his behavior and hints of his nefarious pastimes (see title) gradually make him an obsession for Jong-Su.
The movie toys with the idea that class divides can make people resemble psychopaths from across the economic divide — or maybe Ben really is a sicko. Yeun’s performance keeps Ben alluring yet unresolved. (Yeun won the L.A. critics’ award for best supporting actor.)
The film is long, leisurely and elliptical as it recounts Jong-Su’s largely clueless detective work and gradual disintegration. It’s beautifully filmed, often with only natural light on shimmering, not-so-pretty Korean landscapes. Cineastes may be reminded of the works of Michelangelo Antonioni, in ways both good and bad, but the eventual, disturbing pay-off is worth the investment of time.
Burning borrows movie tropes from mysteries, psychopathic dramas, class conflicts, love triangles, and other familiar genres, but ties them all together with fresh twists that defy comfort and clarity. Most tantalizingly, it leaves all moral judgments up to the audience.
Grade: B-plus. Not rated, but would likely get an R. Starts Dec. 14 at Grail Moviehouse
(Photo: Well Go USA Entertainment)