The South Korean film Burning starts out like an indie romantic comedy, but without the comedy. Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) runs into a girl named Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) who grew up in the same neighbourhood as him. She invites him out to drinks, asks him to take care of her cat while she’s in Africa, and has sex with him in her tiny bachelor apartment. But when Hae-mi returns from Africa with Ben (Steven Yeun), it seems like her ‘romance’ with Jong-su was more of a one-time hook up.
It’s quickly established that Ben is a rich, arrogant douchebag, and probably a player whose interest in Hae-mi is purely physical. It’s the typical set up you’d expect from a romcom: boy meets girl (again in this case), boy falls in love with girl, girl falls in love with somebody else, who turns out to be a huge jerk so that the audience can cheer along when boy inevitably steals girl back. Add the typical indie twists to this and you end up with three’s-a-crowd scenes where Hae-mi and Ben seem to compete to prove who can be the most quirky and enigmatic—as Jong-su looks on, saying and doing very little.
But then about halfway through things take a sinister twist. Up until this point in the film, the pacing has been glacial, and it’s not so much that it speeds up, but it does suddenly become suspenseful. Director Lee Chang-dong really labours over the details in Burning, which can be alternatively interesting or excruciatingly slow, but in the second half this steady, plodding pace is no longer delaying the point, but keeping the viewer from knowing, for certain, the answer to Ben’s mystery.
Yeun—who English audiences will recognize as Glenn from The Walking Dead or the voice of Keith from Voltron—strikes the right balance between charming and scumbag with his portrayal of Ben. Yoo and Jeon both deliver fine performances, though their characters leave something to be desired. Hae-mi is very manic pixie dream girl, while Jong-su spends a lot of the film not reacting to things. Then again he gets more interesting in the second half when he’s forced into the role of amateur detective.