“Burning,” directed by Lee Chang-dong, is a discursive, unsettling movie that is all the more so for being essentially undefinable. (It’s the South Korean entry for the Oscar for best foreign-language film.) Is it a murder mystery, a study of class conflict, a political allegory, a love story, a fantasia? In a sense, it is all of these things, all at once.
Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) has a degree in creative writing and makes ends meet working as a delivery boy. A chance encounter with Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a former grade school classmate he once teased for being “ugly” but is now far from it, leads to a casual romance until she embarks on a trip to Africa. She asks Jong-su to look after her cat in her apartment, which he dutifully attempts, except the cat is nowhere to be seen. This minor mystery is a harbinger of things to come.
When Hae-mi returns, she is accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich slickster with an indeterminate source of wealth. He boasts he’s never cried in his life. Ben’s appearance transforms the scenario into a kind of romantic triangle; Hae-mi’s subsequent disappearance morphs the film into something stranger.
Lee is adapting a short story, “Barn Burning,” by Haruki Murakami, which, of course, echoes William Faulkner’s story of the same name, and he also layers in references to such films as “Vertigo” and “L’Avventura.” Ben is clearly a Jay Gatsby figure. With all these obvious cultural points of reference, “Burning” is nevertheless very much its own creature. It builds slowly, and, at almost 2-1/2 hours, it occasionally drags. But it’s worth the time. This is a very knowing movie about the ultimate unknowability of people. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)