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(Movie Review) 'Burning' is quietly devastating

2018/05/17 11:23

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By Shim Sun-ah

SEOUL, May 17 (Yonhap) -- Returning to the sharply humanistic terrain of his well-received "Poetry" (2010), director Lee Chang-dong's "Burning" is a nimble mixture of slow-burning thriller and drama that depicts the desires, helplessness and anger felt by a younger generation.

Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a part-time deliveryman who dreams of writing his first novel. One day, he stumbles upon Hye-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a girl he knew as a child, on the street. He falls for the flighty yet mysterious girl and she asks him to take care of her cat while she travels in Africa.

A still from "Burning" (Yonhap) A still from "Burning" (Yonhap)

Although he moves back to his parents' farmhouse in Paju, just south of the inter-Korean border, after his father is imprisoned for violence, he regularly visits her small, empty apartment in central Seoul to feed the cat, as he promised to.

She later returns with Ben (Steven Yeun), a cheerful, gregarious but enigmatic well-off man she met during the trip. Unlike Jong-su and Hye-mi, Ben drives a luxurious imported car and leads an affluent lifestyle, although he doesn't have a stable job.

Jong-su develops an uncomfortable relationship with Hye-mi and Ben, and later, the two barge into Jong-su's farmhouse to eat and drink together. There Ben confesses his dark secret hobby to Jong-su: regularly burning abandoned vinyl greenhouses to make them vanish from the world.

A still from "Burning" (Yonhap) A still from "Burning" (Yonhap)

Terrified by the confession, Jong-su goes around the neighborhood every morning to see if there are any greenhouses burnt down. And then Hye-mi disappears. Jong-su realizes that "vinyl greenhouses" could be a metaphor for something more important and begins to follow Ben.

The movie is based on Japanese author Haruki Murakami's short story "Barn Burning," with the setting changed from Japan to Korea.

Lee remains true to the original story in the first half of the engrossing two-and-a-half-hour film but strays from the plot and embraces more genre elements as Jong-su begins to suspect Ben of being the elusive killer.

A still from "Burning" (Yonhap) A still from "Burning" (Yonhap)

But the compelling plot is not all. The auteur explores the harsh reality facing young people in a country where rising youth unemployment is a major challenge. He also shows the wide gap between the haves and have-nots by sharply contrasting Jong-su's old farmhouse and truck with Ben's luxurious house in Seoul's posh southern Gangnam area and his imported car.

Lee leaves viewers with a devastating open ending that can be interpreted in different ways -- it is preceded by a scene where Jong-su is writing his first-ever novel in Hye-mi's home. We don't know if Hye-mi really disappeared and Jong-su actually carried out what was in his mind to take revenge against the world.

Technically, the movie is thoroughly professional and the outstanding cinematography features the peaceful landscape of Jong-sun's hometown shown mostly with natural light by Hong Gyung-pyo of "Mother" (2009) "Snowpiercer" (2013) and "The Wailing" (2016).

A still from "Burning" (Yonhap) A still from "Burning" (Yonhap)

The scene of Hye-mi performing a dance of emotional intensity in front of the two men as they watch the sunset, the sky dimming from a glowing orange, provides an unforgettable experience.

Lee's sixth feature, "Burning" premiered at the 71st Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday night. It gets a domestic release on Thursday.

sshim@yna.co.kr

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