"My hobby is to burn greenhouses" whispers Steven Yeun in "Burning"s defining scene. "I pick an old greenhouse abandoned in the fields and burn it. Once about every two months? I think that's the best pace". Then he looks at the camera, and laughs softly. And it's probably the most terrorizing thing I've seen in the last few years.
"Burning" is the latest twisted thriller coming out of South Korea, a place where commercial movie rules don't really seem to apply. It's based on a novelette by Murakami, "Burning barns", but it's much more than the material it's built on. Where Murakami's piece is whimsical, unassuming and incredibly detached, "Burning" is a relentless and haunting story of love, lust and revenge that will glue you to your seat for its entire 150-minutes runtime.
"Burning" starts out slowly and with a slow protagonist: Jong-su, a twenty-something unemployed son of a farmer who works on and off in the Korean capital, Seoul.
Jong-su isn't particularly brilliant or smart; he wants to be a writer but doesn't really write, has a perpetually surprised look on his face, sports worn-out sneakers and a bowl cut and doesn't show much initiative in life.
A chance encounter with Hae-mi, an eccentric girl who claims to know Jong-su from when they were kids turns into a romantic love story, which comes to an abrupt end when Hae-mi returns from a trip to Africa with Ben, a charismatic young man, in tow.
Ben is everything Jong-su is not. He has a beautiful apartment in the hippest district of Seoul, drives a silver Carrera, wears expensive clothes and has that effortless floppy hair look that takes years to master. Ben is the successful boyfriend Jong-su will never be.
It's never really shown whether he and Hae-mi are an item now, but it's definitely implied. From then on, every time Jong-su sees Hae-mi, Ben is with them as well. "He's like the Great Gatsby" states a jealous Jong-su echoing what we're all thinking - "how does he live like this?"
And it's at this point, about one hour in, that everyone in the audience starts feeling really, really uncomfortable: 'cause while most modern thrillers tend to play all of their cards as quick as possible, "Burning" builds its bonfire one little stick at a time; but under the apparent quietness, the ember is smoldering: it's in the understated but relentless soundtrack, in the increasingly shaky shots; it's in the actors coming closer and closer to the lens, which in turn gets wider and wider. It's Donald Trump raging on the TV in the corner of the frame, and it's the North Korean propaganda blaring on speakers just across the border and carried over to Jong-su home by the wind. Everything in "Burning" is designed to make the viewer increasingly threatened by an unknown, unseen danger. Something's off, but what is it?
The answer comes just as Hae-mi falls asleep on a couch, exhausted, and the love triangle becomes more of a stand-off between the two main characters. "I sometimes burn greenhouses", blurts a victorious Stephen Yeun completely out of nowhere. "Pour some gasoline and toss in a match - done", he explains to a stunned Jong-su. "It's gone in less than two minutes".
And just as gone is the illusion that this is just a regular movie about a regular love story. The scene is absolutely chilling, and it delivers on all fronts as the pivotal point of both Murakami's short story and "Burning"s larger epic. "You will never get caught", Ben reminds Jong-su as he drives away in his Porsche along with the girl of his dreams. Hae-mi leaves on a trip a few days after; gone forever, as if she'd never existed. And the next time we see Ben, he has a new girlfriend - just as eccentric as Hae-mi, and just as beautiful, but a new one, nonetheless.
Murakami's short story ends here; "Burning", on the other hand, goes much farther and burns much brighter - so much that it would be a shame to spoil anything about the second half of the movie.
Let's just say that "Burning" holds its ground amongst the crop of deliciously twisted Korean thrillers such as "Oldboy", "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" and "The Handmaid" to name a few. Let's just say that you will see the ending coming, but not from the direction you expect. Let's just say that "Burning" will haunt you for a very, very long time.
"And I look at the burning greenhouse, and feel euphoria. I feel, right here, a pulse that resonates deep down in my bones", smirks Steven Yeun knocking it out of the park. That's exactly how "Burning" feels like: one of the greatest psychological thrillers ever made; an absolutely flawless movie, and one that well deserves to be added to Damn Amsterdam's monthly movie watchlist.
Burning in Amsterdam: at the Rialto and at the Eye, with limited showings but plenty of tickets
If you like twisted Korean thrillers also watch: "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance", "The Handmaiden", "Oldboy", "I Saw the Devil", "Thirst", "Stoker"
Movies that will never be the same after watching this: "The Great Gatsby", "Fifty Shades of Grey"