Although overlong by at least half an hour, this moody Korean drama has a way of getting under your skin.
Ostensibly a story about a love triangle, Burning concerns a lonely young man named Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in, who looks perpetually dazed) who falls for his flaky ex-neighbor Hae-mi (newcomer Jeon Jong-seo) after she asks him to cat sit while she takes an African safari. When Hae-mi returns a few weeks later, accompanied by a wealthy stranger named Ben (Korean-American actor Steven Yeun, fresh off The Walking Dead), Jong-su is understandably confused and jealous. You might guess what happens next – but Burning has other things on its mind.
Yeun's famous face and boy-next-door likability infuse his Gatsby-ish role with extra ambiguity. (He only speaks Korean in this film, and you'd have to ask a native Korean speaker as to whether his dialect is convincing, but his character's decidedly un-Korean name suggests a murky past.) Midway through the film, there's a moment where Ben, Jong-su, and Ben's rich and dreary friends are watching the slightly unhinged Hae-mi perform a drunken dance. Ben cannot help but yawn, and he smiles sweetly when Jong-su catches him in the act. It plays out as a cute, human moment – "even manic pixie dream girls can be boring sometimes, right?" – but it's an important clue for when the film takes a dark turn later on.
The title refers to one character's stated penchant for setting fire to greenhouses across the Korean countryside; the film is preoccupied with themes of impermanence and forgetting. Did Hae-mi's story about being trapped in a well as a child really happen? Does she even have a cat? There's a dreamlike quality to this film, where you're often not sure what's real and what's not. Although it's achingly slow at times, it may haunt you for a long time afterward.