Burning ★★★★½

Ranked — 2018

"There is a difference between movies that refuse to fix their meanings for fear of exposing their essential vacuousness—that leave so much space for interpretation that they end up feeling legitimately empty, like a shell game without a marble—and movies that bristle with an ambiguity derived from the complex, irreconcilable nature of reality itself." - Adam Nayman on Burning for The Ringer

There are so many versions of Burning that go horribly wrong. There is a genuine pattern in arthouse cinema to be genuinely too long or too boring, to the point where the idea—if there ever was one at all—that the filmmaker is attempting to express gets lost in the shuffle of an ambling running time or a cryptic and vacant style. Burning is none of these things. Instead it is rapturous and hypnotic, and possibly a full-blown masterpiece.

It's an exceptionally beautiful movie, rich with so many ideas about humanity and reality and truthfulness that never loses touch with the characters at its center. The photography and editing are sublime, creating something that riffs on Hitchcock's Vertigo, a movie about what it means to watch and obsess.

Burning can almost be split right down the middle in what it's interested in at different sections of its running time. There's essentially before and after the disappearance of the Hae-mi (and I agree with a number of critics, that her performance is highly underrated; without her, there is no plot). Prior to it, the film is a kind of mediation on relationships and insecurities through the watchful and subdued eyes of Jong-su. He has no earthly idea what to do with his emotional and sexual attraction to Hae-mi, which grows even dicier when Ben comes into play (if I had a time machine, it would be used to retroactively give Steven Yeun an Oscar for this role). He's obviously everything Jong-su isn't, but he's also just an enigma. A strange empath who slides through life at a pace he alone defines, and can't properly be understood on any genuine level. How Yeun played that so well is truly beyond me.

It's tempting to say that once Hae-mi disappears the movie morphs into a thriller, but it's just not that simple. The movie's pacing and style never fluctuate, it simply flows along as the plot unfolds. This actually may be the movie's greatest trick: the filmmaking never gives you any indication of what is true or false. Music cues are spare and the camera is largely objective (albeit through Jong-su), so you aren't ever being told what to believe. Instead you're merely watching a series of events occur that may or may not be connected, but the choice is genuinely your own. The point is that one mystery leads to another; so is any of it even true?