‘Burning’: A Little Chilly

Anyone Up For Some Low-Key South Korean Noir?

More of a glowing ember than a wildfire, Burning is the kind of sleepy thriller that gets certain critics all hot and bothered. You need to wait for it, they say. You need to relax into its rhythms so that the final revelations are sharp and sudden. Because this is about the State of the World, not some genre hustle. It’s meaningful. Uh-huh.

The source material is Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” a spare, sinister short story that first ran in a 1992 issue of The New Yorker. Unsurprisingly, acclaimed director Lee Chang-dong has taken a few liberties.

The core premise is the same: A married man, beguiled by a young woman, watches as she develops a romance with a wealthy suitor and then disappears without a trace. But in the original, very few details emerge. None of the characters even has a name. This time, though, the film transposes the action from Japan to South Korea, making sure also to root it more firmly in the country’s specific cultural experiences. And the slender potency of that wispy piece of fiction has become a diluted two-and-a-half-hour bloat.

The married man is now a poor but educated singleton loner named Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo), who grew up in the same impoverished farmland as the young woman, Haemi (Jong-seo Jun). She’s nearly unrecognizable because of some unspecified plastic surgery that has apparently made her more attractive. And the moneyed paramour is urbanite Ben (Walking Dead star Steven Yeun), a Gatsbyesque playboy with a languid smile and above-it-all indifference to life’s struggles.

Lee has beefed up the economic inequality and layered the narrative with a latent rage, so this becomes a dark fable of the callous one percent. It’s an exposé of the gilded class and its amorality towards a strapped populace that it considers irrelevant, if not downright disposable. (Think of it as a nasty, unflashy sequel to Crazy Rich Asians.) The film adaptation expounds on Murakami’s themes in smart and occasionally startling ways, but without any of the original text’s elegance or concision. My hot take? It left me a bit cold.

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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