Like Parker Gail said, location is everything: As Alienated Young Man dramas go, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning might not work quite as well as it does if not for where much of it is set. It’s also a meditation on perception, spiritual longing, and the nature of reality, while also suggesting what a Terrence Malick film could be like these days if Malick cared anymore. Jongsu (Yoo Ah-In) is a blocked writer who lives on his family’s farm in South Korea, so close to the northern border that North Korean propaganda from loudspeakers can be heard. He unexpectedly reconnects with Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), an old schoolmate who’s now studying the art of pantomime — since imagining having a thing is just as good as having the thing — and she asks Jongsu to catsit while she goes on a trip to Africa.
Haemi returns with a new friend named Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), who’s slick, confident, and successful in all the ways Jongsu is not — and there Jongsu’s troubles truly begin. There’s much to admire in Burning, but its greatest feat may be using Malickian visual motifs in a meaningful way. When the free-spirited Haemi dances topless in the twilight, it fits with her character, since Chang-dong bothered to give her one. (Hey, Terrence: ya burnt!)
Opens Friday at the Embarcadero Center Cinema and the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission.