Many times over the mystery genre has become tired. If your movie is predictable in any way or makes the audience members let out a forced sighing "of course." then there is very little reason, if any, to be lumped into that genre. Infrequently surprising and honestly yawn-worthy, mystery is the new horror and not in a rewarding or pleasing way but, defunct. Thankfully with Lee Chang-Dong's latest film Burning, the mystery genre is being woken up from a coma with a coffee enema.
Sifting through the casual restraint the film has veiled over itself; you start to revel at bits a dread, falsehoods, hunger, chaos. These are all just a few of the profuse themes that Burning never really gets too deep into, rather it prefers to float atop a cold flame. Sitting just above all those ideas are Yoo Ah-in as Lee Jong-su, Steven Yeun as Ben, and Jeon Jong-seo as Shin Hae-mi. All of which embody a certain silence that exuberates a solvable but entrancing riddle, individually and pieced together, these are some of the richest characters I’ve seen in a very long time. Dong's direction is unequivocally the piece that puts this high in the sky. The 148 minutes Dong plays with is never dull for a second, inch-perfect in its simple charged tension and it's dithering desire for connection.
Yoo Ah-In & Steven Yeun in Burning, courtesy of Well Go USA
Typically what we see with antagonists in films is a towering effect, where our hero always seems to be going and looking up. With Burning, we see more care put into the posture of our two leads. Jong-su slouches throughout, while Ben stays stern and straight even at times of boredom. Burning and especially Ben are very audience controlled, both say "Hi" and poke you on the shoulder, so you look one way, but the way you look is up, you know where the end is but you better get to work if you want to find it. Yeun demolishes the role of Ben, who could easily suffer a one-note villain issue that riddles these kinds of movies. Rather he feels like a laidback suave menace, whose presences drowns in a ponderous floating nature that embraces a vile nature. Ben yawns at open weakness, starving Jong-su and Hae-mi of satisfaction. It's a "no one is special" sentiment that's deeply disturbing and even more unnerving when Ben approaches close and hovers his hand over Jong-su's chest telling him to "...feel the bass". In contrast, Hae-mi is depressingly warm, a hopeful sadness brims to her surface. And while Hae-mi is undeniably the most open character, she's also muffled with ambiguity. Jong-Seo plays her with grace and an immeasurable amount of precise suffering that shouldn't be ignored.
Jeon Jong-Seo & Yoo Ah-In in Burning, courtesy of Well Go USA
Silky editing and camera work supports the brilliant script, based off Barn Burning, a short story that gets expanded by Dong and co-writer Oh Jung-mi with a darkly colorful rich world. Dong's direction again is the standout; it's a balancing act to make each of these three characters equally eye-popping yet, Dong gives each actor and each second enough space to honestly flesh their characters out. Burning provides all too many instantly iconic moments for the genre, as Ben knocks on a car window a terrified smile ran across my face, big enough to reach the neighboring state.
Burning is an instant classic full stop. Not only should it commended as one of the mystery genres most excellent outings but, one of cinemas finest achievements of the century. The score by Mowg rattled in my head that heeded me to every inch of the screen and every decibel that hit my ear. An unflinching scene where Hae-mi dances to the horns of a setting sun on Miles Davis' Générique, she reaches up to the sky, in desperation to feel fed, to handle more than just nothing, to break away. At that moment I was disarmed, stuck in my head with a insurmountable thought, "Why the fuck am I smiling?".