Boy meets girl. Boy watches girl's cat while she travels. Girl returns home with another boy.
Things get weird.
The first boy, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a writer, or is trying to be. His favorite author is Faulkner. (Burning is based on the 1992 story "Barn Burning" by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, which is itself a riff on the Faulkner story of the same name.) The girl, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), went to school with the boy when they were kids in the rural South Korean town so close to the North Korean border you can hear propaganda spewing from loudspeakers along the DMZ. He may or may not have called her ugly, when they were kids — it's unclear. He may or may not have rescued her from a well, at one point — it's unclear.
Also: Her cat may or may not exist — it's (you begin, perhaps, to notice a pattern here) unclear.
The film opens as they run into one another as young adults in the busy suburban town of Paju; he's delivering clothes, she's been hired to hawk cheap electronic goods with raffles and dance routines. They go to a cafe, and she quietly dazzles him as she pantomimes holding, peeling and eating a tangerine. They sleep together; she tells him she's traveling to Kenya for a while, and could he look after her cat?
Throughout this section of the film, Jong-su remains a study in slack-jawed passivity, gazing out at the world like it's one big television, and he's idly, endlessly surfing its channels. Hae-mi, in contrast, is talkative, effervescent — dare one say pixie-like; it's she who initiates sex, and, upon her return from Kenya, giddily introduces him to a friend she met on her trip: the rich and handsome Ben (The Walking Dead's Steven Yeun).
Up to this point, director Lee Chang-dong's film has shared Jong-su's affectless outlook; he aims his camera with such a deliberate meticulousness that a numbing chill descends, and you'd be forgiven for thinking he seems not to be aiming it at all. Which is to say: He's capturing the singular, very real but very abstract joy of reading Haruki Murakami's dreamlike prose. He keeps us hovering in a space where reality goes frangible, where both his and Hae-mi's memories of their youth together may not withstand scrutiny, and emotions become untethered from their usual triggers.
With the introduction of Ben, however, the film's gentle, bemused monotone is joined by a lower, more insistent note of dread. What was once an ambiguous puzzle shades into a real mystery — a turn of events that will have Western audiences flashing on films like Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Yoo's performance as Jong-su deepens here, too, as he begins to regard the seemingly affable, privileged Ben with a Talented Mr. Ripley cocktail of envy, disdain and — just possibly — desire.
But where those films hit now-familiar thriller beats in revealing their central mysteries, Burning takes its pulpy mid-point turn without surrendering the sense of ambiguity and ambivalence it evinced in its opening scenes.
Yeun, for example, invests Ben with a languorous manner — watch him casually expand to fit any space the other characters deferentially allot to him — that keeps him fascinating even as it underscores the yawning gap between his Westernized world of wealth and class and Jong-su's existence running the family farm while his father's in jail.
There's a scene in Ben's sumptuous apartment where Jong-su catches Ben gazing at Hae-mi with an expression that betrays ... something unsettling; we're left to guess its true nature (condescension? lust? pride of ownership?), but it neatly sets up the film's final third, in which Ben and Hae-mi visit Jong-su's farm. There, Ben confides in Jong-su about an illegal hobby that delights him, one that causes him to hear "a bass sound that rips to the bone" — a bass sound, in other words, a lot like Mowg's ominous film score of low, barreling, sinister tones.
What happens next between the three characters builds to the film's banger of a climax, and with a running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes, know that the buildup to Burning's final scene proves a slow and steady one marked by extended silences and austere imagery. But those silences, and those images, lend this film its cold, implacable force, and its stark, lingering power.