“Burning” is a mystery. I don’t mean that its plot involves a mystery (although it does), but that the film itself is hard to pin down. Based on a short story (“Barn Burning”) and directed by South Korea’s Lee Chang-dong, it’s long and ponderous, it’s a low-key slacker comedy, it’s a film noir, and it has a mesmerizing scene of a stoned topless woman dancing to jazz music as if she were in “Twin Peaks.” By the time the intense finale arrives, you’re either riveted or disinterested — it’s a slow burn that threatens to die out before it explodes.
Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a twentysomething Seoul man who lacks direction since graduating from college with a degree in creative writing, runs into Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood classmate whom he used to tease but now finds attractive. They hook up at her cluttered apartment, and then Hae-mi asks him to feed her cat while she’s out of town, a task with a bit of mystery to it since Jong-su never actually sees the cat. When Hae-mi returns, she brings a new friend with her: Ben (Steven Yeun, credited as Yeun Sang-yeop), a suave, enigmatic guy with plenty of money but no visible means of support who mentions casually that he’s never cried. Jong-su is jealous of the interloper (he calls him “Gatsby”), and an amusing bit of triangular tension is established as the three hang out.
And then Hae-mi goes missing. Her apartment has been tidied, all evidence of a cat removed. Jong-su kicks into gumshoe detective mode, but his investigation is hampered by his own basic inadequacy and by the fact that as he checks with Hae-mi’s family and friends, he discovers that she was a flighty fabulist and exaggerator. Ben seemed a little sketchy, and now maybe Hae-mi can’t be trusted either.
Lee, co-writing with Oh Jung-mi, confidently walks us through a story that keeps surprising us. Not huge, shocking surprises (generally), but the kind where you raise one eyebrow and say, “Oh?” It strikes me as a film that’s compelling to watch once but not a second time, because it’s the unpredictability that’s so engaging — but I know others who have found multiple viewings rewarding as new layers are revealed. Your mileage may vary. While it may ultimately be too inscrutable for my tastes, I enjoyed the process and respect Lee’s singular vision.
B- (2 hrs., 28 min.; Korean with subtitles; )