Burning

Yoo Ah-in stars in “Burning” as Jong-su, a writer who works on his family’s farm.

“Burning,” the latest from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong, is one of the best-reviewed movies of 2018. It drew raves when it premiered at Cannes earlier this year. And it’s South Korea’s entry for best foreign film in next year’s Oscars. If it scores a nomination in the category, it will be the country’s first film to do so.

Here’s where I get a little mixed up as a movie critic — about notions of good and bad, and taste and quality.

Because while I’m convinced that “Burning” is a good movie, I didn’t especially care for it. While it’s stuck with me for days after, it sometimes irritated me and often bored me.

I admired much about it: its class-consciousness, its haunting tone, its refusal to offer easy answers, a trifecta of superb performances and, most especially, the careful, exquisite filmmaking that went into every frame of it.

And yet it left me cold.

It feels weird to not like a movie that literally every other movie critic loves — like you’re not watching it right. And maybe I wasn’t.

I hope to see it again at some point. Perhaps a second viewing might reveal what so many others saw. Though it’s entirely possible that I just lack the sophistication and cultural understanding to properly watch the movie. Perhaps I failed the movie.

This isn’t to dissuade you from checking out “Burning.” Every moviegoer has different sensibilities, preferences, patience levels.

Let this instead serve as a warning: “Burning” is a real endurance test.

It ambles across its 148-minute running time at a glacial pace and with a minimum of incident. This film is nominally a thriller, or at least a mystery. But it approaches the genres at an odd angle, focusing on the existential enigmas of the characters’ lives rather than the central mystery of the story. This is not a whodunit, but a movie of ideas — about longing, isolation and class-based rage.

Based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami, “Burning” takes a tight focus on three characters:

Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a struggling writer taking care of his family’s farm near the South Korean DMZ.

Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a former classmate of Jong-su’s.

And Ben (“Walking Dead” star Steven Yeun), a mysterious and possibly sinister man of wealth.

Jong-su and Hae-mi meet again as adults. They have sex. She asks him to watch her cat while she takes a trip to Africa. (In one of the many weird touches that permeate “Burning,” the cat never shows itself to Jong-su. Is there even a cat?)

Upon her return, Hae-mi has her new friend Ben in tow. Ben is handsome, charming and rich. He drives a Porsche and owns a swanky apartment. When asked what he does for a living, he just says that he “plays.”

Jong-su dislikes him, naturally, as he simply can’t compete with Ben, who is a much better catch for Hae-mi in every way.

Nonetheless, the three of them hang out. There’s tension — sexual, romantic, socioeconomic. And then Ben reveals his secret hobby: He burns down abandoned greenhouses. Just for fun.

This freaks Jong-su out. He’s further troubled when he realizes that Ben might in fact have much darker fixations than pyromania.

Over the course of the really, really, reeeeeeally slow unraveling of its story, “Burning” piles on the question marks on the way to the film’s exclamation point of a finale. And it’s a good ol’ throat punch of an ending — like the film threw a big rock at the surface of its otherwise calm waters.

But like much else in the film, the ending raises more questions than it answers. Which is admirable. And a little infuriating.

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