Lee Chang-Dong’s new film starts like Cat Person and ends by freezing in the snow. The difficulty is tracking the movements in between. This is a gorgeous, mysterious work shot through a hallucinatory glare. It always feels on the edge of twilight, oscillating the border of dawn and dusk. Within the indiscernible fugue a match is lit, a lighter sparked, a cacophonous fire raging.
Unemployed Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) wins a market raffle. He receives his prize from Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), a girl he once knew from his home village, a girl he barely recognises. She flirts persistently, convincing the young man – adorned with a baffled pout – to see her cat. With no feline in sight, it seems a ruse to get him into bed. Jongsu can’t believe his luck, while his sexual infancy is laid bare. When Haemi swiftly returns from her Africa trip, she has a new man, the impossibly rich, confident and handsome Ben (Steven Yeun). A perverse love triangle begins in which Ben’s singular hobby fascinates, disturbs and threatens the participants.
Performance weighs heavily on the characters. Ben is the oleaginous, sadistic, Faulkner-reading Gatsby figure, a bastard modernist fit for today’s culture of wealth and comfort. Full of new money swagger and faux emotional range, he’s an arrogant foil for Jongsu, the earnest, gauche, aspiring writer. Never have two men had so little in common and it’s the airy, capricious, uninhibited Haemi who binds them. All three actors are excellent, encouraged by Oh Jung-Mi’s surreal script and Chang-Dong’s wondrous framing.
Based on Haruki Murakami’s Barn Burning and transferred to Korea, the story works well as literature. Disquiet and unease fester on the page. In cinematic form the trickery becomes a little exhausting. But the strange male obsessions, the simmering insecurities and the suffocating jealousies are gloriously and slyly depicted, the cat-and-mouse games composed in a preposterous rhythm. Where is the greenhouse? Where is the well?
The expertly managed mood and tone brings on thoughts of Kazuo Ishiguro’s story A Village After Dark, in which a man’s perpetually delayed nightmare finishes at a bus stop. The sense of anticipation replaces the state of foreboding. But as he waits an unsettling truth emerges: without action, you will be bound to atrophy, passivity and indecision. In Burning a man releases his rooted, toxic anger. The act is complete, the flames leaping up behind.
Burning does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.
Watch a clip from Burning here: