Director Lee Chang-dong says the rage of younger generations and the economic hardship they face, is at the core of the film. (Supplied: Palace Films)
There’s a silent, creeping desperation in this South Korean psychological thriller — winner of the critics’ prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival — that is initially so understated it almost lulls you into a sense of complacency.
Inspired by a short story by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and adapted for the screen by novelist and filmmaker Lee Chang-dong (Poetry), it’s a film about a young man who appears on the surface to be keeping it together, but spirals into an emotional meltdown after falling for a girl he can’t have.
Shot by master cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (Snowpiercer, Mother), Burning alternates between a city-bound drama in Seoul that’s full of shadowy, steep streets, and a Korean countryside that’s hazy and humid, just a few kilometres downwind from the communist North, where daily propaganda diatribes blare from loudspeakers.
Burning was filmed in the countryside of Paju, a rural farming community. (Supplied: Palace Films)
A perfectly cast Yoo Ah-in cuts a slightly forlorn figure as Jong-su, an aspiring writer who does odd jobs and tends a farm for his father, who’s awaiting trial for assault.
The details of this crime remain vague, but brief scenes in a courtroom, during which Jong-su is a solitary figure in the public gallery, are placed in the film like an ominous framing device.
Jong-su is a recent university graduate and writer who is fond of American novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. (Supplied: Palace Films)
The story begins with Jong-su’s chance encounter with a childhood friend.
The free spirited Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) is working as a scantily clad spruiker outside a shop when he sees her, but doesn’t recognise her at first because she’s had plastic surgery.
This being a Murakami story, there’s a strong physical attraction between them that’s soon very complicated.
They sleep together in her small studio apartment before she leaves for an African holiday.
He agrees to feed her cat while she’s gone — a creature he never sees — and he masturbates to her memory while gazing out her window at the phallic communications tower atop a nearby hill (a moment of symbolism that might have been better left on the page).
Hae-mi, childhood friend of Jong-su, is played by first-time actor Jun Jong-seo. (Supplied: Palace Films)
Weeks later, Hae-mi returns accompanied by the handsome and ostentatiously wealthy Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), a young man with resting smirk-face who drives a Porsche and claims he’s never cried.
The writer in Jong-su presumably finds him fascinating, and at any rate he has to put up with him if he wants to see Hae-mi again, and so the three characters coalesce into a kind of love triangle, with little evidence of actual love-making, but a lot of pining on Jong-su’s part.
He observes the wealthy, carefree members of Ben’s inner circle during soirees in fancy wine bars or in his new friend’s immaculately kept Gangnam apartment, looking out of place in his slacker uniform of t-shirt and jeans.
They’re the elite of Korea’s economic miracle — glamorous but hard to pin down. At one point Ben refers to this generation as Korean Gatsbys — part of a new breed of youthful entrepreneurs whose wealth, he believes, is impossible to explain to common people.
Korean-American actor Steven Yeun is best known for playing Glenn Rhee in television series The Walking Dead. (Supplied: Palace Films)
It’s an outrageously dismissive statement that also builds an aura of mystery, so it’s no surprise that Jong-su’s imagination begins to work overtime, and he begins nurturing paranoid and resentful fantasies about his romantic rival.
A foreboding scene half-way through the film begins the film’s dark turn, after the trio of friends have shared a bottle of wine and a fat joint at the farm.
As the sun sets, a stoned Hae-mi performs an impromptu partial striptease beneath a Korean flag that waves listlessly on the horizon.
The two young men watch her for a few sublime, heavily symbolic minutes, until Jong-su becomes outraged, and tries for the first time to exert some kind of power over her.
She rebukes him, leaving him stewing in his resentment as the red lights of Ben’s Porsche recede into the distance.
The story might have smouldered tastefully into a dissonant conclusion from here, but Lee Chang-dong delivers considerably more.
As the title foreshadows, emotions prove highly flammable.
Jong-su (played by Yoo Ah-in, left) comes from a working-class farming family while Ben (Steven Yeun) appears to enjoy an affluent lifestyle in the city. (Supplied: Palace Films)
There’s a revelation that pushes Jong-su over the edge. Ben tells him his secret hobby is setting fire to abandoned greenhouses — an admission that groans under the weight of metaphor when he explains that Korea is full of ugly, useless structures to be burnt down.
Refreshingly, the final act relies less on this kind of symbolism and more on relatively simple, perfectly placed images that express a growing tension.
At this point, Burning becomes a kind of stake-out movie, and Jong-su a vengeful stalker.
In an arresting sequence of streetscapes and car shots and voyeuristic points of view — mostly involving locations we’ve seen before, but imbued with a new urgency thanks to Jong-su’s increasingly paranoid perspective — the tonal register becomes dangerous and urgent.
There’s an echo of Hitchcock’s Vertigo here, too — another psychological thriller set in a hilly city about a man obsessed with a mysterious woman.
Jong-su’s frustration builds, and when he finally unleashes his anger, the film enters the irrational and excessive register of madness.
Overwhelming emotions of desire, resentment, anger and fear make for a thrilling, confronting finale.
But what’s equally powerful is the realisation that the story you’ve seen is full of contestable truths, and that certain elements — like the cat which doesn’t appear in Murakami’s short story but is a clever addition here — may or may not actually exist.
Burning, ultimately, is a superior thriller with a double edge — a film that’s about a doomed romantic obsession and also a social critique that lays bare the impotency of an outsider seeking to understand the opaque world of the mega rich and powerful.
For all of Jong-su’s desperate attempts to take matters in hand, he remains a hauntingly tragic figure on the sidelines of events he doesn’t understand.