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Movie Review: South Korean Thriller ‘Burning’ is a Little Too Ambiguous for the Audience’s Good

CREDIT: Well Go USA Entertainment

Starring: Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, Jeon Jong-seo

Director: Lee Chang-dong

Running Time: 148 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But It Could Be R for a Sexual Encounter

Release Date: October 26, 2018 (Limited)

Burning could be South Korea’s answer to The Vanishing, the 1988 Dutch thriller with one of the most unsettling endings in film history. But it doesn’t start out that way. Instead, it looks like it could be a riff on Jules et Jim, or whatever ménage à trois narrative you prefer. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a twentysomething wandering soul who one day stumbles across Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), an old classmate. They catch up, and soon enough he is catsitting for her while she travels to Africa. He clearly fancies her more than a bit, and they do have sex, but that becomes a tad complicated when she returns with Ben (Steven Yeun), a fellow Korean traveler she met in Kenya. The three of them hang out a few times, with Jong-su starting to act possessive while Ben seems like a much chiller dude, though it is not hard to suspect that there is something else going on under his carefree exterior.

Around this point of confusion, Burning suddenly takes on a much more sinister tone when (SPOILER ALERT) Hae-mi disappears and won’t answer any of her messages. Jong-su’s singular focus quickly becomes tracking her down, whereas Ben is somewhat concerned but ultimately not that worried. This could be because he never really knew Hae-mi all that long or all that well, but Jong-su suspects he may have had something to do with her disappearance. This being a mystery movie, we are conditioned to believe that this is an avenue worth examining. Jong-su goes all in on following through with what he wants to do about it, but we are left with a significant (intentional) lack of satisfaction, as the full truth of what actually happened is never revealed. Committing to such ambiguity is fine, but Burning is not terribly interested in really examining the nature of that ambiguity. The end product is thus unnerving, but lightweight.

Burning is Recommended If You Like: The Vanishing, Ambiguous mysteries, A sprinkle of a Great Gatsby influence

Grade: 3 out of 5 Hiding Cats

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