Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 05, 2018 10:24 am 
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A resonant slow burner thriller

Burning, Lee Chang-dong's first film in eight years, won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes this year and was nominated for the Palme d'Or. It features the Korean-American actor Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead, Sorry to Bother You) suave and assured in his first starring role in a Korean film, but well matched by the other two leads. This is South Korea's Best Foreign Oscar entry for 2019, and it's certainly clear why. Burning is a brilliant film that takes a Haruki Murakami short story that appeared in The New Yorker in 1992, adds flavor from Faulkner, and deepens the mix with details and twists that will thrill and haunt you. (Faulkner also wrote a story in 1939 called "Barn Burning," the title of the Murakami story.)

Lee doesn't make many movies, but when he does, they're worth waiting for. This is a mystery and a character study that's astonishing in its richness. Part of the brilliance is how Lee and his co-author Oh Jung-Mi work with the limited details of Murakami's story, making them more resonant without unduly embroidering them, retaining unexplained elements, adding satisfying touches. This turns into a love triangle more intense than the original story's - to put it mildly. And the class differences are further heightened and allowed to simmer, as well as the mystery.

Action begins with Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) a boyish, inexperienced young man who wants to be a writer. He grew up in a village, abandoned by his mother young, raised by his farmer father whose anger problem is about to lead to jail time due to an act of serious violence against an official for which he refuses the apology that might gain him leniency, an issue frustrating and angering to Jongsu that threads through the film.

Jongsu has a menial delivery job that leads him by chance to Haemi, (Jun Jong-seo) a young woman in scanty clothing advertising a product come-on on he street. Haemi recognizes Jongsu, though he doesn't know her, and eagerly chats him up. She explains to him that they grew up in the same village and went to the same school. She asks him how she looks. She admits she's had "work" done, but in school the only thing he said to her was that she was ugly. He doesn't remember.

They go on a date that night and have sex in her little apartment, where she has a shy cat named "Boil" that never comes out. On this first date she has revealed she studied with a mime and can mimic things like peeling a fruit so realistically you think the fruit is there. She tells him about the "Little Hunger" and the "Big Hunger." The Big Hunger is a need to penetrate the meaning of life. For that, she wants to travel. She gets a trip to Africa somehow, to Kenya, and they arrange for Jongsu to come to her little flat whiles she's away to feed Boil. The memory of their first night there stimulates Jongsu to masturbate looking out the window whenever he makes these kitty runs.

The big jolt comes when Jongsu drives his old truck to the airport to meet Haemi after her trip and she arrives accompanied by a man, Ben (Steven Yeon), who winds up driving off with Haemi after dinner in his fancy late-model Porsche that a friend has brought to the restaurant. Ben is handsome, assured and rich. More than once we visit his sleek modern apartment. Ben won't reveal the source of his wealth, but he's superficially quite friendly to Jongsu. He cooks pasta for the three of them. He invites Jongsu to a gathering with well-off friends. Jongsu is never explicitly treated like an ignoramus or a peasant. Yoo Ah-in, who, despite the emphasis on Yeon especially in the US press, is the film's protagonist and the character with the most screen time, makes Jongsu an intriguing character, conveying his uncertainty, a goofiness, an old-fashioned politeness, and at times a feral energy, hinting at a repressed, perhaps inherited, rage. As for the smug, easeful Ben, he seems to have projects, but he only says he likes to "play," with the hint that conveys of deviance or amorality. Haemi says he's merely rich. Jongsu, spinning off a line in Murakami's story, says there are many Gatsbys in Korea now. No doubt there are many Jongsus too.

Jongsu has lost Haemi to the Porsche and the poshness, and yet he is more interested in her than ever and she seems still interested in him. Perhaps Ben's hold over her is sinister? When it seems Ben and Haemi have been missing for a while, they call Jongsu and immediately come, in the Porsche, to Jongsu's family farm, near the North Korean border - which Ben thinks a fun fact. He brings a picnic supper and French wine. When he passes around a joint, Ben reveals his habit of harmlessly (without larger injury to property or men) setting fire to greenhouses. This happens every couple of months. He hasn't done one since the Africa trip, so he's due. He's been scouting them in Jongsu's area, he says and has found one quite near the farm, but he won't say where.

The dope and this story prompt a vivid dream in Jonngsu of himself as a child in front of a burning greenhouse, filling the screen with its bright yellow flames. Did he set the fire? It's only a dream, but it plants a seed. From then on Jongsu covers the whole region around, sometimes breathlessly running, casing greenhouses, looking for the one Ben may have torched, in his eager frenzy almost torching one himself. Meanwhile, as this futile, anxious search continues, Haemi disappears. Her phone line dries up, and she is not at her apartment. Jongsu is worried about her cat starving. Ben confirms that he has lost touch too, says she's gone up "like a puff of smoke."

The action of Burning is studded with mysteries and dead ends, but it takes a very specific and decisively violent shape in the final reel. This slow but wonderful film, which is full of hints of class, jealousy, sex, rage, mystery and unexpected violence, leaves haunting traces that linger long in the mind. One of the year's best films.

Burning, 148 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2018, and showed in at least two dozen other international festivals. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival 4 Oct. 2018, with Steven Yeun present for a Q&A. Metascore: 9̶0̶%̶ 91%. US theatrical release begins 26 Oct. 2018 (NYC) and 2 Nov. (LA), SF Bay Area 9 Nov. 2018.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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