It took me two viewings of Lee Chang-dong’s latest film to fully appreciate what the man has given us. Whilst there is a beautiful, lurid and captivating surface to this genre-morphing masterclass of slow building tension, it is what’s underneath this stunning facade that has been running through my mind ever since and has made this one of the most brilliant and fascinating pieces of cinema I have seen all year!
The film is based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami. Whilst it is good to know the origin of this tale, it is not vital to enjoy it as Lee takes a very brief and powerful 13 pages and turns them into 148 minutes of ambiguous reflection. There are many similarities present but ultimately this is entirely its own narrative.
Jong-su (Yoo Ah-In) performs odd jobs in Paju, South Korea. One day he runs into Hae-mi (introducing Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood neighbour whom he does not remember at first. She proposes that the two go out for dinner that night. Hae-mi asks him to look after her cat while she’s on a trip to Africa, which Jong-su happily agrees too as his feelings for her begin to grow again. When Hae-mi returns, she brings with her Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), a mysterious and wealthy playboy she met in Africa. It appears there is now competition for Hae-mi’s affections. One day Ben visits Jong-su’s with Hae-mi and confesses his own secret hobby. This ignites something in Jong-su and to tell you any more would be a crime!
Lee Chang-dong has constructed a film of such subtle complexity that it kind of puts the competition to shame. It was beaten to the Palme D’Or at Cannes earlier this year by Hirokazu Kore-eda’s wonderful SHOPLIFTERS and whilst I consider both films to be masterpieces I believe where SHOPLIFTERS is accessible and more entertaining, BURNING buried itself under my skin and will stay there for a long long while.
BURNING is a character study. Whilst there are 3 main characters for us to psychoanalyse and hypothesise about, it is really Jong-su that demands the most scrutiny. My opinion on him and his situation was continuously morphing in such a powerful way. He seems forever confused by the world around him, like he hasn’t been paying attention until right this second but now it is too late to catch up. His past is shrouded in mixed up memory, his present is rife with confusion, instability and paranoia and his future is uncertain at best. He is a relatively quiet and simple man but as they say, still waters run deep.
Yoo Ah-in plays Jong-su perfectly and although he is apparently quite a big name in South Korea, I have yet to familiarise myself with his work. Jeon Jong-seo is a complete newcomer but she is phenomenal as Hae-mi! She is a manic pixie dream girl archetype but amongst the abject sexuality and apparent sadness behind her eyes there is also an innocence that plays very well alongside Jong-su’s quiet humility. Steven Yuen is incredible as Ben. Whilst e caught a glimpse of him speaking Korean in Bong Joon-ho’s OKJA earlier this year, this is a completely new side of him and is one that will catapult him even further in his career. He is the catalyst for everything in this film and the scene’s he is in are rife with understated tension. There really isn’t a bad performance amongst the three of them.
I am aware of how much I am gushing now so I will begin to wrap this up. What I will say though is that I came out after seeing this for the first time a little shell shocked, a bit confused and quite unsure of exactly what I had just seen in terms of narrative. It was upon finishing it the second time merely 12 hours later that it fully hit me and once it did, I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. If you like Haruki Murakami then it is well worth checking out just to see how Lee uses the odd bits here and there as adhesive for his much larger story. If you’re a Lee Chang-dong fan then what the hell are you doing reading this? Go find it and watch it already because I genuinely think it is his best work. If you’re a fan of Korean cinema then this is a great example of the rural border between the North and South. It shows the countryside in such a beautiful way but very much implies the country’s troubled history and where they are right now. If you’re a fan of world cinema in general then I really an’t recommend it enough. The reviews have been extremely positive so far and there really is no smoke without fire. This one is well worth your time. Just expect a long, slow and steady story that asks a lot more from you than your usual trip to the cinema would.
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