Burning begins as a young man name Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) makes his way through a busy Seoul street. Outside of one of the storefronts, two women are hyping the business to the crowd, and one of them, Haemi (Jong-seo Jun), spares Jong-su some flirty glances as she pulls numbers for raffle prizes. Jong-su doesn’t recognize her, but Haemi reveals they were classmates and neighbors when much younger. The two go to dinner and the tentative overtures of romance continue, culminating in a gentle sexual encounter shortly before she departs on a trip to Africa. While she’s gone, Jong-su regularly goes to Haemi’s apartment to feed a pet cat he never sees.
The film is firmly, comfortably in the realm of the sedate and mundane — exquisite art house cinema land — finding restrained drama in the specifics of the character’s personalities, his awkwardness and her cheery invention.A greater disruption arrives when Haemi returns from her vacation. Jongsu expects a continuation of their budding relationship where it was left, but she is closely trailed by a new friend named Ben (Steve Yuen, billed here as Sang-yeop Yuen, the name he was given when he was born in Korea). He has an ease and confidence that is the exact opposite of Jongsu’s personality, and it quickly becomes clear that he has laid claim to Haemi’s affections.
Upon this simple narrative frame director Lee Chang-dong constructs a veritable palace of insight and profundity. There is not a wasted moment or detail across the film. (Based on a story by Haruki Murakami, the screenplay is co-credited to Lee and Oh Jung-mi.) Everything contributes, either to the character development, the understanding of place, the explication of class divisions, or, as Ben’s secrets darken, the mounting sense of danger. Lee renders it all with skill and care, showing special mastery with the delicate emotions of the piece. In that task, Lee has remarkable collaborators in his actors. Yoo rouses instinctual sympathy though the dictates of the character require a considered obliqueness, Yuen hints at the ways privilege can corrode the soul, and Jun is nothing less than vivid in portraying a young woman whose inquisitive positivity just might make a bit of a fabulist.
Many of the images Lee puts on screen are staggering in their beauty, especially an extended sequence that takes place at a remote house in an atmosphere of prolonged gloaming. The film is lovely, but spare. There are sequences of jarring impact, but Lee has no apparent taste for ostentation. Burning is lean. It’s also wise and deeply felt. It represents one of the rare and wondrous instances when a film does everything right.