Drawn from a short story by famed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, this epically sprawling South Korean psychodrama is deeply enigmatic, unsettling and, eventually, just a touch frustrating.
Director and co-writer Chang-dong Lee’s adaptation features a memorable performance by Steven Yeun (infamously late of US TV’s The Walking Dead and credited as ‘Yeun Sang-yeop’), but the real star is actually Ah-in Yoo, who plays hapless protagonist Lee Jong-su with sullen skill.
He’s (supposedly) a creative writing student in Paju, Seoul, and in the midst of doing odd jobs he meets cute former schoolfriend Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun, impressive in her first film), who says she’s had plastic surgery. She seems to be a narcoleptic (and a liar), and she wants him to feed her cat while she goes on a trip to Kenya, and after we have an intimate glimpse of Jong-su’s private sexual fantasies, Hae-mi returns with Ben (Yeun, playing the role with almost scary coolness).
Ben’s rich and lives in a fancy apartment, compared to Jong-su’s rundown family farm on the border of North Korea, and a lengthily discomfitting battle begins between the two men, even though Hae-mi doesn’t appear necessarily attracted to either and, in a disturbingly protracted scene, is revealed as pretty messed-up herself.
So much is implied and so many questions linger long after the curtain falls: Is Jong-su being framed for something? Did Hae-mi know Ben before Kenya? What is Ben’s high-paying job? And big secrets? And why can’t the hopelessly passive Jong-su get the Hell over himself and fight for the girl he loves – or, at least, is carnally obsessed with? And does any of this really matter?
A bit of a ‘Critic’s Movie’ (it’s overlong, vague and in a foreign language), this could well do with 20 minutes being trimmed from its 148 minute running time, and yet there’s still an awful lot here to enjoy, from the expertly subdued playing to the location work and cinematography to a nasty yet elusive sense of humour. And there is something cruelly satisfying in watching Jong-su’s life go up in smoke.
Burning (MA) is in cinemas now