Henry Rowlands’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Well I never" was what I couldn't help but say out-loud whilst shuffling out of a Saturday night screening of 'Burning'. I haven't been so captivated and mesmerised by a new release since 'First Reformed'; I hadn't really read any reviews of the film, I'd just glanced at the star ratings and synopsises, and I'm very glad I did. It really is best not to know anything about this film and where it goes as, pun half intended, it is a slow-burn, broiling mystery of a film, that is refreshingly unpredictable and intriguing, that slips into from one sort of tone to a tense thriller unnoticeably. The alluring narrative developments are best un-spoilt, so I'll do my best not to give anything away.
Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) is a shy, introverted young man, who is estranged from his parents (having not seen his mother for 16 years, and his father a prosecuted criminal), who bumps into Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), who he knew and went to school with in his childhood. Haemi mentions to him that she's going away to Africa and needs Jongsu to look after her cat, who Jongsu is convinced doesn't exist (as he can never find her in what is a tiny flat), while she is gone. When Haemi returns she is accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun), a Gatsby-esqu mysterious wealthy young man, who lives in an attractive Gangnam apartment, who is always having gatherings with other Korean rich-kids, and who cooks pasta whilst listening to music. That is all I'm going to say about the plot. The story demands your full attention, and you have to use effort to properly invest yourself, but its a very re-warding and deeply interesting film. As I said, as the narrative moves on questions are raised and things bare new meanings, and a fascinating mystery un-ravells. Lee Chang-Dong brilliantly writes and directs it, and he uses the long-running time to great effect, allowing the mysteries to simmer. It's a very Hitchcockian film in many ways (a tense car chase, a vanishing lady, and SPOILERS: a seemingly charming yet strange young man who is revealed to be a psycho who like prays on young women similarly to Norman Bates or the more suave Brandon from 'Rope' END OF SPOILERS). I can't wait to see more from Chang-Dong; he's a director very much on my watch list!
Yoo Ah-in is terrific, and drives the film onwards through the murky depths with his performance. I also thought Jeon Jong-seo was very good, her weird topless dance was a strikingly memorable sequence; but I would say that Steven Yeun as Ben was probably the stand-out actor for me. I loved him in 'Sorry To Bother You', and its great to see him in this (he has a diverse range for sure) playing someone very different; Ben is a very a cryptic and mystifying character, and Yeun plays him so well, selling the bourgeoisie extravert with a puzzling and secretive nature. I also loved the score by Mowg, which really reflects the films beguiling obscurity.
I could talk about what happens in 'Burning' for hours, and I'm finding it hard to restrain myself from spoiling any of it. The green-houses, the sold calf, Boil... you can read so much into these thought-provoking pieces. I really liked how Chang-Dong doesn't serve the meaning of the events at hand to the audience on a plate, and respects the comprehension of the viewer; he leaves the plot open for individual interpretation, things fall into place and strands reveal themselves after watching the film in a believable, yet not entirely objective way.
I think this film may slip under many people's radar - I know that Letterboxders are rightfully loving it, but I'd expect that mainstream audiences would most likely favour going to see something like 'Green Book' or 'Can You Ever Forgive Me' for more conventional, less challenging awards movies (the fact that 'Cold War' got a best foreign language oscar nom over 'Burning' irritates me greatly!). As long as they don't see (*shudder*) 'How To Train Your Dragon 3' then thats alright with me, but people are missing out on what I feel is probably the best film of the year so far.