(director/writer: Chang-dong Lee; screenwriter: Oh Jung-mi/from the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami; cinematographer: Hong Kyung-pyo; editors: Kim Hyun and Kim Da-won; music: Mowg; cast: Steven Yeun (Ben), Yoo Ah-in (Jongsu), Jun Jong-seo (Haemi), Cho Seung-ho (Dad, Lee Yong-seok), Hye-Ra Ban (Mom); Runtime: 128 MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Gwang-hee Ok/Chang-dong Lee ; WellGo US Entertainment; 2018-South Korea-in Korean with English subtitles)
“A slow-burn masterful adaptation by South Korean writer-director Chang-dong Lee.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A slow-burn masterful adaptation by South Korean writer-director Chang-dong Lee (“Poetry”/”Oasis”) of Haruki Murakami’s absorbing mystery short story entitled “Barn Burning.” A 1939 story by William Faulkner had the same title.
The superbly shot psychological thriller with the cool jazz score by Miles Davis is about obsessive love and its disturbing, undefinable and unusual story could be about all of the following: a murder mystery, a class conflict, a political allegory, a psychotic tale of consuming jealousy, a tale of sexual yearning or even a fantasy love story. It’s something funky and suspenseful that Chabrol could have had a blast filming or be one of Patricia Highsmith’s riveting existentialist Ripley books. Burning is set in the modern-day materialistic society of Korea.
Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in, in a moving performance) is a poor working-class country farm boy and an aspiring writer (influenced by American authors such as William Faulkner and F Scott Fitzgerald) from the rural town of Paju, near the 38th parallel, where the North is visible. The kid is saddled with a rough childhood, his mom (Hye-Ra Ban) abandoned the family when he was young and his angry, loner, farmer dad (Cho Seung-ho) – a military veteran who collects knives – is in legal trouble for assaulting his neighbor, a government inspector.
Left to fend for himself and to run on his own the farm when his dad is jailed, Jongsu graduates from high school and goes to Seoul. There he falls under the feminine spell of an impulsive street kid, Haemi (Jun Jong-seo, a great debut performance), who hustles a department store sponsored raffle on the street and rigs it so he wins the prize. She remembers they were once high school classmates and he called her ugly, but he doesn’t remember her. Following the raffle, they have a quickie in her apartment.
Haemi leaves for a planned two-week trip to Kenya and on her return calls her devoted boyfriend Jongsu to pick her up at the airport. She appears there with her new sophisticated slightly older yuppie boyfriend, the rich, handsome, upper-class Americanized Ben (Steven Yeun, a Korean-American star on the rise). This makes Jongsu think she’s too good for him and he begins to resent her. But he’s still allowed to hang out with her and Ben, becoming a Lost Generation-like trio. Jongsu’s rival is Ben, who doesn’t like people long enough to keep up relationships, while she might be a pathological liar who wishes to reinvent herself (artfully expressing her desire ‘to vanish like that sunset’), while Jongsu has an empty feeling about himself that hides his troubled inner-being.
After the trio smoke a joint at Jongsu’s farm, the carefree tourist confesses to Jongsu that he is not only a creep, a possible serial killer and a deviant but an arsonist (with a thing about burning down greenhouses). When Haemi seduces Jongsu and he has sex with her again, he at first feels grateful but his resentment slowly builds to a rage and it leads to a fiery, menacing and hallucinatory conclusion where everything is about as clear as mud. To figure out all the ways the main characters have been warped by society and what is true or false, would take a panel of top level shrinks a long time to sift through all the paranoia to get at all the things Lee wants us to uncover in this messy but intriguing psychological thriller.
It was selected as the South Korean entry for the 2019 Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscar ceremony.
REVIEWED ON 11/1/2018 GRADE: A