‘Burning’ review: A mercurial South Korean mystery starring Steven Yeun

The Chang-dong Lee film is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami.


DIrected by Lee Chang-dong

Starring Steve Yeun, Yoo Ah-In, Jeon Jong-seo

Not Rated 

Playing at The Quad and Walter Reade Cinema

It’s been eight years since the release of South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s last film, but the wait has been worth it. (To be fair, he spent some of that time as his country’s Minister of Culture and Tourism.)

His new film, “Burning,” based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami, set the Cannes Film Festival alight this May and if you have time for one unusual, somewhat mercurial foreign language film this season, this could be the one. The picture stars Yoo Ah-in as Jong-su, an aimless young man who reconnects with an old school chum, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). Well, she remembers him (and claims she’s had plastic surgery), he just goes along with it. She leads him back to her tiny apartment, they hook up, then she asks if he’ll take care of her cat while she takes a trip to Africa.

He agrees, but we never actually see the cat, the first red flag.

Hae-mi returns, but on the arm of Ben (Steven Yuen of “The Walking Dead”), a wealthy dude with a slick car, but also some demons. Though a third wheel, Jong-su hangs out with the couple, and all share a drugged-out, gorgeous sunset to some classic Miles Davis. That’s when Ben confesses his curious habit of burning down greenhouses.

And then Hae-mi disappears. There’s a lot left of the movie, in which Jong-su nearly loses his mind searching for this young woman who kinda-sorta was his girlfriend for a hot minute. Lee teases the story along (it’s close to two-and-a-half hours) with tangents and seeming dead-ends, and while it can be a little frustrating at times, it all snaps together perfectly at the finish.

Apart from the mesmerizing performances, and a nice window into current South Korean culture that may be novel to many Western audiences, there’s a low-level murmur of unspoken anger that permeates this look at class inequality, jealousy and, for lack of a better term, modern romance. It’s the type of movie that demands immediate discussion afterward. “Wait, so what was the deal with the cat?” being a good place to start.

Jordan Hoffman