There is a lot of talk about fires in Lee Chang-dong’s South Korean noir thriller “Burning,” but the pyrotechnic effect that matter the most is the slow burn built by the director and his star, Yoo Ah-in, in this unsettling tale of sex, stalking and self-loathing.
Yoo plays Lee Jong-su, who writes some but spends most of his time tending to the rundown one-time dairy farm his family owns in a rural area in South Korea — close enough to the North Korean border that he can hear the loudspeaker blasting Kim Jong-un’s propaganda. He frequently drives into the city to get away from the farm, but he has no friends and little contact with others.
One day, Jong-su runs into Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-Seo), who used to go to school with him in their old hometown. Hae-mi is flighty and flirty, and it doesn’t take long before she’s talked Jong-su to watch her cat while the takes a trip to Africa. The deal is sealed, in Jong-su’s mind at least, when they have sex in her apartment.
After a couple weeks of feeding a never-seen cat, Jong-su gets a call from Hae-mi, with news that she’s returning home to Korea. At the airport, Jong-su is delighted to see her again, but less thrilled when he sees she’s not alone. She’s got a new friend, Ben (Steven Yeun, the Korean-born former star of “The Walking Dead”), who drives a Porsche and has what seems to be unlimited wealth.
This triangle — with Hae-mi representing an obliviously sensual but sometimes depressed third leg — gets more intense when Ben and Hae-mi drive out to visit Jong-su in his rural home. It hits a breaking point when Hae-mi mysteriously disappears, and Jong-su starts seeking clues into her whereabouts.
Treated as a standard thriller, the movie might have demanded a faster pace. But Lee is after bigger game, focusing in on Jong-su as his crush on Hae-mi evolves into obsession for her and barely disguised jealousy against the interloping Ben. The pacing may seem a bit ponderous, but there’s a purpose, a deliberation, behind every single move.
There are traces of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” among other classic references, in Jong-su’s slow descent into madness. With a gripping performance by Yoo, which goes from smoldering to raging with subtle mastery, Lee serves up a psychological thriller that’s deliciously dark and packs a wallop in the final reel.
Opened November 9 in select cities; opens Friday, December 7, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Not rated, but probably R for nudity, sexuality and some violence. Running time: 148 minutes. In Korean, with subtitles.