From the hands of South Korean director Lee Chang-dong comes a gripping meditation on big-city loneliness, the legacy of helpless rage and the elusiveness of mankind. An adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, this mystery drama/thriller is a story of three characters with hints of a love story and a revenge phantasy. It also comes packed with as many unexpected turns, intriguing loose ends and acerbically humoristic dialogue lines as a movie can handle.
As one has come to expect from Murakami, there is a troubled young man at its center, aspiring novelist Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), unassuming and good-natured, yet without direction. It doesn’t help that his choleric father gets sentenced for assaulting an official, leaving Jong-su to tend to his country house in Paju, a small town at the border with the North Korean propaganda as its soundtrack. One day he is recognized by a girl at a mall, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) who seems to remember him from back in the days with the acuteness of a long-lost friend. They share a smoke, some beers in a bar and a bed in a well-timed and elegiac sex scene before she leaves for an African holiday. Meanwhile, Jong-su is just the right man to take care of her avoidant cat, roaming Hae-mi’s vacated room like a museum of memories.
Things turn south when Hae-mi returns from travels with Ben (Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead fame) in tow, prime bachelor material with a million dollar smile and his own Porsche. Ben doesn’t work, he ‘plays’ and, as his accrued wealth at his age seems to suggest, rather well. While Jong-su is taken aback, he decides to play along for the time being, especially since Hae-mi makes it clear she cherishes his presence. At the same time, she is driven by some primal urge, a hunger. The Bushmen of Africa have it, too, a Big Hunger for the secrets of life. There is a correspondent dance to this, slowly gaining traction and growing ecstatic as the dancers raise their hands above their head, an undulating movement of intensity. Like a flame.
Chang-Dong is very meticulous in feeling out the subtleties of this triple constellation, without ever telling too much. What is exactly Hae-mi’s relationship with Jong-su? She recalls how he called her ugly in high school. Apparently, he also may have rescued her from a deep well next to her house once. She and Ben visit Jong-su in his country abode and there is a gorgeous long shot of Hae-mi dancing topless to a Miles Davis song in the sunset, a shot like a moment trapped in amber.
Mere minutes later, Ben confides that he likes to burn down greenhouses, as a matter of fact he is looking for one “very near” to where Jong-su grew up -although we never actually see this act come to fruition. To top this off, Jong-su starts getting irksome phone calls without anyone speaking at the other end of the line. The last of these comes from Hae-mi’s phone, a worrying call with the sound of running and someone falling down. After that, she is gone. Obsessed with solving the riddle of the greenhouses and finding his lost love, Jong-su becomes entangled in a net of confusion. The cat has vanished too and Ben has a new romance, as if Hae-mi never existed. After all, she had a lot of credit card debt, an ex-colleague of her quips, one may as well go missing.
Chang-Dong’s work is a thing to be experienced, not explained. The direction is very assured, quick to change the tone without ever missing a beat, luxuriating in off-beat humor and unusual shots, taking the time to set the mood in long, meditative takes without losing focus or narrative thrust, to focus on a ray of sunshine on a wall. During their first meeting, Hae-mi teaches Jong-su the art of pantomime, a type of acting where it’s crucial to forget that the thing you are portraying is not really there. Chang-Dong’s approach is similar. Is Ben guilty for the girl’s disappearance? Is this all in Jong-su’s (and our) mind? It appears that we need not to dwell on these mysteries.
Ultimately, Burning works so well because of the three electrifying characters at its core, enigmatic enough to incite our interest without being willfully opaque. Jeon Jong-seo is a revelation and there is something missing as the quirky character of Hae-mi drops from the screen in the last third of the movie’s runtime. Equally debatable is the plot’s resolution, which does nothing to alleviate the tension that has been building for 150 minutes. But these are minor setbacks for such a pure exercise in craft. Burning has already set a new critics’ record at Cannes this year with 3.8 out of possible 4.0 points and won the festival’s FIPRESCI prize. It may go far in the Oscar race.
“What’s a metaphor?” asks a character at one point. This movie may be one. Equally literal and symbolic, it’s clear and evasive and lighter than air and will linger in your mind for days to come.