Lee Chang-dong adds thriller elements to his staple of slow-burn character studies, producing something visually stunning and profoundly impactful
What do you do after making five of the best films South Korea has ever produced? You somehow make an even better one it seems.
Lee Chang-dong has the power to build something vastly important and philosophically profound from the simplest of source material and character mixes. He is like a man you pass a scrap of paper to and he hands you back the Magna Carta.
A director who clearly picks his projects carefully, this is only Lee’s sixth film, coming 21 years after his debut Green Fish in 1997. This is not for a shortage of offers, there’s not a film company in Korea that is not scrambling to secure his services.
This time a short story by renowned Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Barn Burning, proved tempting enough for Lee to make for the screen.
Aspiring novelist Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) gets by with odd jobs in Paju when he bumps into former classmate and childhood neighbour Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo).
Jong-su does not immediate recognise Hae-mi owing to her plastic surgery, but the pair agree to meet for drinks. Hae-mi details her upcoming trip to Africa and asks Jong-su to feed her cat while she is away.
The pair sleep together before Hae-mi's departure and Jong-su feeds her cat all while hoping a relationship can start proper on her return.
However, a handsome and successful curveball arrives in the figure of Ben (Steven Yeun), who is accompanying Hae-mi at the airport when Jong-su arrives to pick her up.
It seems Ben and Hae-mi had bonded after becoming stuck at Nairobi Airport for three days after a bombing nearby. From here, an awkward situation unfolds as the trio spend more time together.
Ben is everything you do not want to compete again, including wealth and unabating supplies of confidence, while Jong-su struggles to keep his family farm on the border to North Korea running.
The tension the film builds through this “three’s company” set-up and Jong-su's growing love for Hae-mi is intense to the point of unbearable.
Two-and-a-half hours seems to flyby as we ponder how these three with such differing and non-complimentary hopes and desires will end-up.
The film returns to that common modern Korean film theme of extreme inequality and the toll on the country’s young working class.
There must be special mention for one scene in particular. After smoking a small amount of a joint at Jong-su's farm, Hae-mi gets to her feet, takes off her top and dances topless in the dying light of dusk while the South Korean flag flutters in the background. It is a quintessential piece of Lee filmmaking – somehow both simple and complex at the same time, and thing of overarching aesthetic beauty.
The ashes and embers from Burning are likely to infiltrate your mind in the wake of watching this disorientating and impactful piece of true art.