Daringly heating his mysterious tale involving just three people on a low boil across two and a half hours, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong establishes and then sustains an almost trancelike state while still keeping a simple yet elusive story afloat in Burning. This is a beautifully crafted film loaded with glancing insights and observations into an understated triangular relationship, one rife with subtle perceptions about class privilege, reverberating family legacies, creative confidence, self-invention, sexual jealousy, justice and revenge. The pic looks likely to get a good ride on the festival circuit and in specialized theatrical release in select markets.
The script has been adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning.” But the film also plainly acknowledges its debt to William Faulkner, who also wrote a story, in 1939, called “Barn Burning” (the aspiring writer character names Faulkner as his favorite, while another is seen reading the author in a late-on scene). Lee and his regular co-writer Oh Jung-mi feed a great many undercurrents into the superficially simple yarn of an unprepossessing deliveryman who is surprisingly taken to bed by a vibrant young woman he doesn’t remember but who was once his classmate. When she returns from a trip to Africa with a ridiculously handsome, smooth and rich Korean boyfriend she met on her travels, the young man knows he’s the loser, but that’s when the story really begins to percolate.
Good enough looking but bashful and unassertive, Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) gets swept up in spite of himself by the electric currents emanating from Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), who’s dressed up cute doing promotions on the sidewalk. She has the unbeatable combination of being both pretty and self-deprecating. She even remembers that Jongsu called her ugly back in school, but she blithely admits she’s had work done since.
Haemi adds that she’s planning to go to Africa because she has “the great hunger,” which is just her way of saying she has a lust for life. Jongsu is dullsville by comparison, but she makes him a lucky guy, at least for a short time. She also asks him to take care of her cat while she’s on her trip, and it tells us all we need to know about his feelings for her that he pleasures himself every time he visits to clean up the kitty litter.
By contrast, Jongsu’s family life is fractured and unhappy, a fact compounded by a criminal trial that soon lands his father in prison. The family farm is very close to the North Korean border and Jongsu, who likes to listen to North Korean propaganda on the radio, spends most of his time there once Haemi returns from her trip with the sophisticated and suave Ben (Steven Yeun) and is being squired around in his Porsche. When Ben is compared to The Great Gatsby, Jongsu observes, “There are so many Gatsbys in Korea.”
Across the first hour or so, Lee keeps the film lovely in a low-key way occasioned by its sophisticated but unforced observations. It’s evident that Jongsu is suffering because Haemi is not about to jettison her big-bucks boyfriend for him, just as it’s clear that the ever-passive Jongsu’s jealousy is slowly coming to a boil. After Ben admits that he has actually long had the vice of greenhouse burning, the film suddenly goes stunningly silent as we witness an example of it.
The pic itself heats up after this point when Haemi goes missing, and the two men slowly begin circling one another in a dance you know can’t end well. The film’s considerable length does make itself felt at certain moments, but Lee wins his gamble that he can sustain interest in this three-hander for the full stretch and the inevitably violent climax and its aftermath justify the long wait.
Intelligence and subtle storytelling smarts are in evidence throughout Burning, which gratifyingly pays off the viewer’s investment of time. The performances of the three principals are first-rate, although it cannot be denied that Jun is sorely missed during the lengthy stretches when she’s not onscreen. The fine craftsmanship is evident in every respect, from Hong Kyung-pyo’s outstanding cinematography to Mowg’s distinctive score.
Production companies: Pinehouse Film, Nowfilm, NHK Film
Cast: Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, Jun Jong-seo
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Screenwriters: Oh Jung-mi, Lee Chang-dong
Executive producer: Lee Joon-dong
Director of photography: Hong Kyung-pyo
Production designer: Shin Jeom-hui
Costume designer: Lee Choong-yeon
Editors: Kim Hyun, Kim Da-won
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)