Casual audiences of foreign movies know South Korea makes some of the best films in the world, but you’d be forgiven if you hadn’t yet heard about Lee Chang-dong. His work doesn’t have the bombastic appeal of Park Chan-wook’s and Bong Joon-ho’s. His are small-scale dramas, usually with an immersive, epic length that gives him enough time for the type of penetrating character study he has mastered. His last film, the tragic masterpiece “Poetry,” followed a suburban woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s whose grandson is implicated in a girl’s rape and murder. His previous film, “Secret Sunshine,” is another perfect saga of a woman’s devastating, unpredictable journey after her husband’s death and her son’s abduction. I recommend them both wholeheartedly. There are few greater filmmakers in the world right now than Lee Chang-dong. You should know his name.
After eight years, he has finally made a new film, the hotly anticipated “Burning,” which won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes this year. It is his most ambiguous, infuriating, and ambitious film yet. It evades easy categorization, defies exacting interpretation, and wanders in unpredictable directions. Were it a tabletop puzzle, it wouldn’t fit together neatly and it would have holes wide enough to fit a coffee mug. But it would still feel coherent and complete, even if it was arduous work to get through it.
Based on a Murakami story - itself inspired by a Faulkner story - “Burning” begins with a long tracking shot down a busy street in Seoul, where our twenty-something protagonist, Jong-su, runs into Hae-mi, a pretty young woman, by chance. They go way back, but it’s been a while. They grew up next to one another in a rural farm town just a stone’s throw from the North Korean border. They smoke a cigarette together, then go for a bite. He’s an aspiring writer, it turns out, but like everyone else his age, he’s out of work. She’s about to take a vacation to Africa, and she asks him to look after her cat, Boil, while she’s away. Before she goes, they have sex at her tiny studio apartment.
Neither of them has come far from their humble origins. She’s deep in credit card debt - money spent on plastic surgery and Kenyan vacations, apparently - and her room gets sunlight for a few precious seconds every day. His mother is long-gone and his sister got married, so Jong-su’s world revolves around his family’s farm, which he maintains alone because his father is in prison for a violent assault. You get the sense that this chance encounter with Hae-mi is the first interesting thing to happen in his adult life, and she quickly becomes the center of his tiny world. This relationship is thrown into stark relief when she returns from Africa with a new friend, Ben, who becomes one of the great characters of contemporary cinema.
Ben is played by Steven Yeun, well-known to American audiences from his work in “The Walking Dead” and “Sorry to Bother You.” Jong-su compares him to Jay Gatsby. We don’t know what he does or where his capital comes from, but Ben lives in a chic apartment in Gangnam -
the famously affluent Seoul district - and drives a Porsche. He cooks Italian food, smokes pot, and dresses impeccably. But he’s the type of guy who wouldn’t know what to say if you brought any of this up to him. He just exists in comfort and sophistication, exuding charisma alongside a gorgeous posse of cosmopolitan friends, acting as if his life were not the most rarefied in the world. Hae-mi is immediately drawn to him. And then, about halfway through “Burning,” Ben confides in Jong-su. He has one pleasure he holds above all others. Every few months, he drives out to the country, stakes out a greenhouse, and burns it down, and it goes without saying that he can do so with complete impunity.
The film is about to take a very sudden and unexpected turn, but I cannot overstate the level of dread “Burning” develops by this point. Much of the credit is due to the exquisite work of Yoo Ah-in, the Korean action star who imbues Jong-su’s stoicism with a potent, slow-burning intensity. He’s skinny and pleasant and harmless at first glance, but as we follow him through actions that make less and less sense, Yoo’s performance accumulates new, terrifying layers of tension. We never know where “Burning” is going, but we look at Jong-su and know it can’t be going anywhere nice. At any given moment, he is a developing storm of timely hungers and frustrations: The toxic, ubiquitous male anxiety about the soon-to-topple patriarchy, technology-induced social isolation, inherited class trauma, a global economy that has left his generation in the dust.
Hae-mi, played by the remarkable first-time actress Jeon Jong-seo, is just as troubling. What’s her deal, exactly? She’s one part manic pixie dream girl, one part manic-depressive, one part male fantasy. She’s prone to pulling her shirt off, waxing poetic, dancing spontaneously, and slipping into suicidal soliloquy. She’s kept at the exact right distance to inspire countless interpretations of her every utterance, but she’s too bewildering a sphynx to pin down. Some people will find the depiction problematic. That was my initial reaction. But ten plot reversals later, the rhythms of the narrative and the primal terror of the final act sweep away any easy or reflexive suppositions. Such is the craft of Lee Chang-dong that “Burning” ensures lasting, seismic aftershocks. Since I saw it, not a day has passed that I haven’t thought of it and shuddered.