Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, first published in English in the New Yorker in 1992, recalls a brief reunion between the narrator and an old friend that is complicated when this friend’s new partner is introduced. Murakami’s style – characterised by uncertainty, unresolved questions and the necessity to derive meaning from the mundane, from the spaces in between action – has been masterfully captured by director Lee Chang-dong, who has succeeded in filling some of these spaces without losing the sinister atmosphere that underlies this story.
The 148-minute running time allows each of the central characters to be developed beyond their presence in Murakami’s tale: Jeon Jong-seo excels in her first film role, imbuing her performance as Hae-mi with the suggestion of an inner life above and beyond the estimations of the two men to whom she finds herself attached. Steven Yeun, playing the elusive Ben, presents, as described by Jong-soo, a mysterious Gatsby-figure, charming – even kind – yet somehow managing, from his first moments on screen, to unnerve Jong-soo and the audience. But it is Yoo Ah-in’s performance as Jong-soo – singled out in the New York Times’ Best Actors of 2018 – that elevates this film. Yoo communicates, all at once, the character’s awkwardness, his subjection to circumstances – including the need to earn a living, his desire to write and his relationships with his mother and father – that are beyond his control; and yet, as the plot progresses and becomes more obscure, the audience sees the nascence of jealousy, suspicion and rage that will drive the film towards its conclusion.
The movie, moreover, is beautiful – cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo reveals the quiet grandeur of in-progress Seoul cityscapes, cluttered apartments and badly kept rural suburbs; nothing is idealised, as this picture demonstrates that the messiness of the quotidian so often reveals more than the pristine magnificence exhibited in Ben’s luxury home. These visuals, coupled with a screenplay that leaves plenty of space for reflection, for the viewer to observe the characters – particularly Jong-soo – in private moments between their dialogue with others, preserves the understated weight of Murakami’s narrative while creating a considered expansion of the source text, weaving a story that stands alone in its cohesiveness and impact.
Burning is released in select cinemas on 1st February 2019.
Watch the trailer for Burning here: