Twentysomething delivery boy Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is the guy who never gets the girl, but out of the blue, Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), a cute promotions assistant who claims to have gone to his rural high school, is making her interest in him very obvious. Soon they’re canoodling in her tiny Seoul apartment just as the sun illuminates the place. This is the crowning moment of Jong-su’s life, but Lee Chang-dong, South Korea’s master of glitchy storytelling, doesn’t allow him to enjoy it for long.
Hae-mi has a friend, the oleaginous Ben (Steven Yeun). A rich guy coasting along in his Porsche 911 on daddy’s money. He’s smugness personified, and just a tiny bit creepy, though Jong-su can’t say what he really thinks for fear of upsetting Hae-mi. Frankly, we feel his pain, and when Haemi suddenly disappears without trace, he’s convinced that Mister Trust Fund is somehow involved. Ben, after all, has a predilection for unusual mementos, and has confessed to a habit of burning down abandoned greenhouses for pulse-quickening kicks.
In the Haruki Murakami short story, ‘Barn Burning’, which inspired all this, it is farm buildings which go up in smoke, but the film is, in many respects, about burning inside, and how a class-driven sense of ingrained victimhood and social frustration can impact on the way you actually see the world. South Koreans fought hard for democracy but now find themselves partly in thrall to an untouchable corporate uber-class, though they’re hardly alone in feeling bristling exasperation at the undeserving rich. Can Jong-su really be sure though?
The film’s 148 minutes amble along with the teasing uncertainty of, say, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, leaving us eager for a compelling narrative pattern to offer closure. Where the likes of 2007’s Secret Sunshine and 2010’s Poetry affirmed Lee’s precise narrative facility, in Burning it’s the play of ambiguity which draws us in, for although Jong-su is nominally the would-be writer, he might just be being played by the sheer slipperiness of his Manic Pixie Dream Girl lover and her sleek pal.
It’s a film where every detail counts, so pay attention to the conversation about miming how to eat a tangerine, and keep your eyes peeled for Hae-mi’s seemingly invisible cat. There’s a dialogue going on here about how we can ever be certain about what we think we know, yet it’s couched within a film whose lurching handheld CinemaScope framing and penchant for turning magic-hour light into a symphony of murk leave us in an enveloping miasma of unease.
The performances, too, are spot-on: rough-hewn Yoo Ah-in is somehow gormless yet sympathetic as the bumbling Jong-su; US-based co-star Steven Yeun exudes superiority while also finding a complex humanity in his character; and startling newcomer Jun Jong-seo is a quicksilver discovery as the mystery girl. Underscored by a suitably spooky ambient score from Lee Sung-hyun (aka Mowg), it all comes together in a truly haunting piece of cinema, impacting on heart, mind and the very pit of your tummy. It’s gripping in the moment, but with plenty to take away for afterwards. Genius really isn’t too strong a word.