Starring Steven Yeun. In Korean, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
This tightly controlled ball of Korean interclass fury from veteran filmmaker Lee Chang-dong (Peppermint Candy) is loosely based on a Haruki Murakami story called “Barn Burning”, itself a nod to William Faulkner’s tale of the same name. The film is packed with literary references, but is a strikingly visceral experience, centring on a would-be writer too busy being baffled by life to sit down and write.
Said scribe is Lee Jong-su, played by Yoo Ah-in, a TV, film, and art-world icon in South Korea. Jong-su would be called good-looking if he had a better wardrobe and didn’t shuffle around Seoul like a 12-year-old with his mouth half open. Anyway, he’s considered attractive by Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a similarly impoverished schoolmate from his childhood days in a farming community so far north, you can hear state propaganda blasting across the border.
When he bumps into her at a random food stall, she says he meant a lot to her when they were kids. But he doesn’t remember her at all. This doesn’t stop her from asking him to look after her cat for two weeks, during some kind of spiritual journey to Africa. So he accompanies Hae-mi to her dingy, less-than-tiny apartment. (“This is a lot nicer than my place,” he says.) He looks after her needs, but the cat never puts in an appearance.
Nonetheless, Jong-su returns to refill the food bowl, clean the litter box, and more. He’s thrilled when Hae-mi calls him from the airport, asking for a ride—less so since she’s travelling with a devilishly handsome fellow called Ben (The Walking Dead’s Detroit-raised Steven Yeun). Actually, the guy has his black Porsche Carrera waiting for him, but he condescends so nicely to Jong-su, it’s even harder to compete for Hae-mi’s attention.
They form a kind of unlikely trio. And after the film’s most remarkable sequence, at Jong-su’s farm—with Hae-mi doing a seminude sunset dance to Miles Davis’s crepuscular music from Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows—the rich but gainfully unemployed Ben confesses that he occasionally burns down abandoned greenhouses for fun. Does he really do that, or might he mean “women”, not greenhouses, like some kind of Korean Patrick Bateman? Jong-su sees him as a not-so-great Gatsby, and casts himself as a resentful Nick Carraway. But will he ever get to that typewriter?
Some viewers will be more baffled than the protagonist by Burning’s 148 minutes of puzzle-making. And they can argue that its shocking coda actually adds too much clarity to what precedes it. Still, the haunting film’s elegant mysteries keep unfolding after the last ashes are swept away.