Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong and Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami share distinct fixations — loneliness and desire — so the combination of their talents feels like a natural fit. No surprise then that “Burning,” Lee’s first feature in eight years, expands Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” into an enthralling look at working-class frustrations in which a sad figure chases elusive possibilities.
As with “Secret Sunshine” and “Poetry,” Lee takes his time combing through a scenario rich with the ineffable sadness of people at the mercy of a cruel world. The result is a haunting, beautiful tone poem. Lee takes his forlorn character to unpredictable places, leading to an outcome that dangles tantalizing questions and potent themes.
Murakami’s abstract narrative provides an ideal template for Lee’s standard fixations, resulting in a dark and often gripping look at the soul-searing plight of an alienated young man. That’s Lee Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo), an introvert who lives in his own quiet world and seeks escape at every turn. His life is defined by possibilities that hover beyond his reach — romance and affluence — and they’re epitomized by two fascinating characters drifting into his orbit just enough to clarify why.
The first possibility emerges in the opening minutes, as the jobless wannabe writer wanders through a working-class neighborhood and comes across Haemi (newcomer Jeon Jong Seo), an energetic young woman working at a lottery stand who remembers Jongsu from their youth. The opposite to his soft-spoken demeanor, she latches onto him and lures him to her cramped apartment to show her how to feed her cat while she’s away. It’s an easy tactic to get the pushover into bed, and their abrupt tryst plays out for minutes on end, going from erotic to creepy as the camera gets closer to Jongsu’s face. He doesn’t smile, maybe because he’s never had a reason for it, and his face reflects the sudden shock of a man unfamiliar with what it even feels like for things to go in his favor.
Needless to say, it’s not what he thinks. Haemi vanishes to Africa, and when Jongsu drops by her apartment to feed the cat, it never materializes. Did he imagine the whole thing? “Burning” hovers in such uncertainties while fleshing out the mundane details that define the rest of Jongsu’s world. Nothing in his daily routine works in his favor: As he contends with his incarcerated father’s mounting legal troubles while tending to the older man’s farm, he fails to conjure any support from his neighbors, and his professional aspirations remain unfulfilled. He fields strange calls at odd hours, as if to underscore his hopelessness that someone will throw him a line. Not since “A Serious Man” has a movie hinged on one character’s baffled reactions to a Job-like pileup of bad luck.
Then things get weird. One day, Haemi returns from Africa with a new partner in tow, an ultra-charismatic hunk with an American name: This is Ben (Steven Yeun, “The Walking Dead”), a wealthy and assertive stranger who grins at Jongsu when Haemi brings him along to Ben’s elegant mansion. Jongsu can’t tell if Haemi’s toying with him or merely considers him one of several fuck buddies, and his quiet shock at the new circumstances hover on the brink of a grim joke. He can’t stop staring at the pair in wonder, and grasps for the words to explain Ben’s allure. “He’s the Great Gatsby,” he tells Haimi when they finally get a private moment together, pegging him as one of those “mysterious rich people, you don’t really know what they do.”
Ben himself embraces his privileged status — the fetching Yeun, a rising star in the U.S., is a perfect fit for the role — and when the trio hang out and smoke pot together, he shares a carefree philosophy about the world that further complicates Jongsu’s resentment. Director Lee (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jungmi Oh) deepens this beguiling drama with dialogue that hovers on the edge of lyricism. “I can’t remember ever shedding a tear,” Ben says, “so there’s no proof of sadness.”
Lee Chang-dong movies tend to begin in one place and catapult into new directions as his characters’ obsessions deepen. “Burning” eventually becomes a fascinating psychological thriller once Ben confesses his kink: a secret hobby of burning greenhouses (updated from the barns in the source material). Again, Jongsu has no idea what to believe: Is Ben truly a deranged arsonist or just messing with him? He has to know, and launches on a quest to map out the greenhouses in the surrounding area to figure out if Ben plans to set any of them aflame, and whether he harbors the destructive impulse himself. These unnerving periods of dialogue-free exposition approach “Vertigo” in their poetic eeriness, and it’s some of Lee’s best filmmaking to date — as the narrative arrives at the culmination of Murakami’s story, it launches into unknown terrain.
“Burning” continues to develop from there, with Ben and Haemi flitting in and out Jongsu’s world as he develops a fixation with their behavior. The movie veers from a patient, naturalistic style to profound expressionistic moments that flow into the narrative before crumbling away just as fast. One striking moment finds Haemi shedding her top, silhouetted against the fading evening light as she engages in a slow outdoor dance set to smooth jazz — then devolves into tears. Whether this event unfolds as we see it or represents Lee’s own understanding of the character remains unclear.
Meanwhile, “Burning” crystallizes its fixation on class. At times, the filmmaker overplays his hand — he drops in news reports of Donald Trump appealing to blue-collar Americans in the background of one scene — but the movie stages a striking contrast between the restrictions of Jongsu’s world and Ben’s casual sense of comfort. Jongsu wants it so badly that he begins to echo Ben’s world through his own confused filter. When he argues to Jongsu that there’s “no right or wrong, just the morals of nature,” he sets the stage for Jongsu’s attempt to embody that sentiment in a shocking final showdown.
That climax reflects much of Lee’s work, which often takes its time to seep in before veering in a grim direction. It’s not the most satisfying payoff, but it gels with everything leading up to it by leaving open any number of possibilities. Haemi could be a manic pixie dream girl epitomizing Jongsu’s deepest fantasies, and Ben might reflect the self-confidence eluding Jongsu at every turn, but he’s such an unreliable narrator (“Aren’t all protagonists crazy?” his shrink asks) that “Burning” forces you to take the events at face value alongside him.
“It’s no fun being serious,” Ben prods Jongsu, and “Burning” sometimes could use that advice as well. Lee Chang-dong’s cinema turns on somber, contemplative moments, so it’s a welcome shift to see him work with a character willing to call the movie on its own stern tone. But “Burning” keeps twisting back on itself, charting the path of a man waking up to the world, only to find that it won’t stop messing with him.
“Burning” premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival in Official Competition. It is currently seeking distribution.