If you’re looking for a bit more going on in your usual hero-villain dichotomy, then Burning may be the film for you. Using its lengthy run-time and gradual pacing, this film is indeed the slow burn, unravelling its world of mysteries and deep-seeded human inadequacies.
It all begins when Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a writing graduate who lives on his own in a decrepit farm and is barely employed, bumps into an old childhood friend, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). They become closer together than they were before and just when Jong-su thinks they’re a couple, Hae-mi asks him to look after her cat while she travels to Africa. She returns from her trip with Ben (Steven Yeun), and although the trio begin to hang out like new friends, it’s clear that there’s a tension between Jong-su and his counterpart, the charismatic, wealthy, and intriguing Ben.
Their differences are so apparent right from their first shared screen time, but the film doesn’t lay them out as hero and villain all too defiantly – given the various levels of jealousy, resentment, ennui, and carelessness, both seem likely capable of evil, just in their own different methods.
The tensions really heat up when Ben reveals to Jong-su his secret hobby – barn burning. It’s after Ben claims he is planning another burning that the clarity of the story starts falling away, leaving behind troubling ambiguities – seen only from the perspective of Jong-su, his relationship with Hae-mi and Ben slowly becomes more and more fragmented and twisted.
Although this film posits a central mystery, it’s soon clear it has more fascination digging into the layers of the mystery rather than merely finding the linear path to solving it. Burning takes an intelligent and somehow sympathetic look at the unfairness and the enigmas of life, and how in this particular story it can lead to impulsively destructive behaviour. It manages to build tension so effortlessly, using both the terrifically evocative music and the silences between it to instil as much tension into what seems like otherwise tame scenes.
Burning is so solidly built, not wasting any of its leisurely paced scenes and ending at the right moment with a thoroughly unshakeable denouement, it’ll remain a haunting memory in your mind for quite a while.
Burning plays at UWA Somerville from Monday, February 4 to Sunday, February 10, 8pm, and at ECU Joondalup Pines from Tuesday, February 12 to Sunday, February 17, 8pm.