After lighting Cannes on fire earlier this year — where it topped IndieWire’s critics poll as the best film of the festival, and landed the highest score in the long history of Screen Daily’s annual critics grid — Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” is finally set to open in American theaters. The Korean auteur’s first feature in eight years begins playing in New York today, expands to Los Angeles on 11/2, and will start cropping up between the coasts on 11/9 (keep an eye on the film’s official site for more details as they develop).
Adapted from a (very) short Haruki Murakami story called “Barn Burning,” which was first published in “The New Yorker” in 1992, and can be read in its entirety here, “Burning” tells the story of an aimless young writer named Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), whose rootless existence is turned upside down after a chance encounter with childhood classmate Shin Hae-mi (newcomer Jeon Jong-seo), a beautiful woman who’s been rendered unrecognizable by time, experience, and some top-notch plastic surgery. The two quickly rekindle their old friendship — and light the spark of a new romance — before Hae-mi asks Jong-su to feed her cat while she takes off on a spirit quest to North Africa.
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That’s when things start to get strange. For starters, Jong-su can’t seem to find any evidence of a cat living in Hae-mi’s cramped Seoul apartment. And then… there’s Ben. Hae-mi may have gone on that trip to find herself, but she returns with a man in tow. And not just any man, but “The Walking Dead” star Steven Yeun, playing a slick, rich, and mysterious hunk who claims to have never cried, and confesses to a lifelong addiction to arson. The hidden darkness only makes his Gatsby vibe sexier; Jong-su never has a chance. But when Hae-mi suddenly disappears, our slack-jawed hero begins to suspect that Ben’s secrets might be more sinister than he first assumed.
While the film uses Murakami’s source material as more of a starting point than a reference, the writer’s fans know better than to expect a conventional thriller. Lee makes good on that assumption and then some, the director unpacking a simple premise into a brilliant and beguiling portrait of working-class frustrations, and resolving it into one of the best movies of 2018.
Still on the fence? Here are five reasons why “Burning” should be the next thing you see in theaters.
1. It’s a Perfect Introduction to One of the World’s Greatest Filmmakers
Unfamiliar with Lee Chang-dong? It’s not your fault. Despite the global popularity of Korean auteurs like Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and even Hong Sang-soo, Lee has still escaped the attention of many American cinephiles. Unfortunate as that may be, there are several reasons why he’s struggled to cross over.
For one thing, Lee’s films are long, subtle, and demanding. Among the most harrowing experiences this critic has ever had in a cinema, 2007’s “Secret Sunshine” is a profound examination of faith and hopelessness that lands with all the weight of a Lars von Trier melodrama. Despite Jeon Do-yeon winning Best Actress at Cannes for her shattering lead performance, the film was virtually unseen in the United States until the Criterion Collection released it on DVD four years later.
By that point, however, Lee was already something of a national treasure in South Korea. In fact, he even served as the country’s Minister of Culture and Tourism from 2003 to 2004, after President Roh Moo-hyun promised to fill the position with an artist rather than a politician. Lee didn’t particularly enjoy his post, but it’s easy to appreciate why he was chosen for it. His second film, 1999’s “Peppermint Candy,” was a major event among South Koreans of a certain age, the fragmented drama resonating for how it connected the dots between national trouble and personal trauma.
“Oasis,” Lee’s daring 2002 follow-up, furthered his reputation in the film world without necessarily earning him a wider audience. A raw slice of neo-realism that’s flecked with ineffable moments of poetry, the bittersweet romance follows a mentally handicapped ex-convict who falls for a girl with cerebral palsy (the casting of able-bodied stars might rankle, but Lee makes full use of their skills). It’s a wrenching piece of work that won its director major awards all over the world, and it made a whopping $10,000 at the U.S. box office.
Kino Lorber was kind enough to give “Poetry” a decent release in 2011, and that film grossed more than $300,000 in the U.S. (not bad for a tender drama about an old woman who develops an interest in poetry while struggling with Alzheimer’s). Told with literary nuance and heartrending poise, “Poetry” cemented Lee’s status as one of the best screenwriters on the planet, and an auteur capable of finding rich veins of humanity in margins where most filmmakers are unwilling to look.
“Burning,” which thrives in the dark stretches of time between its defining moments, fits that same gift into a sexier package that’s streaked with violence. It’s tinged with dark mystery from the start, and doesn’t melt into abstraction until after it’s got its hooks in you. Even Lee newcomers should be transfixed, but — on the off chance you get bored — keep in mind there’s a hugely rewarding payoff at the end of this 148-minute ordeal.
2 . It Features One — if Not Both — of the Year’s Best Scenes
About that ending. It would be criminal to spoil what happens, but let’s just say that it’s worth the wait. In a year full of killer final scenes (“First Reformed,” “Madeline’s Madeline,” and “Paddington 2” come to mind), “Burning” might have the most powerful of them all. And yet, the climax isn’t even the best part of the movie.
For that, you’d have to go back to the midway point, when the major characters gather at Jong-su’s parents’ farmhouse for a delirious evening near the DMZ. Calm and high, the tension of their bizarre love triangle having reached a steady boil, Lee’s three leads sit on the porch and listen to Miles Davis as they watch the sun set. Suddenly, as if possessed by her own ghost, Hae-mi decides to take off her shirt and dance against the blue-orange sky. Time stops. Class dissolves. National borders fuzz over and blur. For one blissful moment, anything can happen, and anyone can do it. For better or worse, there’s nothing to stop them. It’s a scene that’s singlehandedly worth the price of admission.
3. It’s the first Haruki Murakami Adaptation to Get it Right
Among the many remarkable things about the aforementioned scene is that — like so much of this movie, and so little of previous Murakami adaptations — it manages to visualize the unsteady (and often unspoken) masculinity of the author’s writing, and breathe new life into an iconoclastic voice that has long since lapsed into self-parody. Beloved for his ability to explore the loneliness that lurks beneath the trappings of modern life — and his willingness to chase it down some of the deepest and most surreal rabbit-holes that you can find in modern literature — Murakami has also been criticized for the recurring motifs that run through his work, as well as his seeming unwillingness to move past them.
“Barn Burning” was too spare to feel indulgent, but those few pages managed to fit in all of the standard Murakami-isms: A numb (but horny!) male protagonist, an elusive lust object who gets naked and then vanishes into thin air, unsolvable mysteries, inexplicable bursts of violence, and jazz — lots of jazz. Most of all, the story distills Murakami’s blunt and detached style, an introspective approach that’s virtually always processed through the first-person.
It’s so hard to dramatize that few people have dared to try. Of all his novels, only “Hear the Wind Sing” and “Norwegian Wood” have been adapted for the screen. The former didn’t leave much of an impression, while the latter — despite fine direction from Tran Ahn Hung, and an early score by Jonny Greenwood — was unable to pierce into the marrow of the story; it felt like reading the book in the dark.
Filmmakers have had better luck with Murakami’s short stories (Jun Ichikawa’s “Tony Takitani” has its charms), but the writing has always been an obstacle. Until now. Refusing to pave over the holes the author drills into his work, or to obscure the male gaze of his characters until the women they like no longer seem objectified, “Burning” embraces these troublesome elements and stretches them out until they begin to lose their shape. Anchoring itself to Jong-su without ever fully identifying with him, the movie stares at him until we’re no longer sure what it is that we’re looking at. His silent-type sensitivity curdles into insincerity, and his socioeconomic frustrations distort into rage. By the time it’s over, Jong-su is just as mysterious to us as the girl who got away, and the rich finance bro he blames for taking her.
4. Steven Yeun Is a Bonafide Movie Star
To that last point, it was a stroke of genius to cast Asian-American actor Steven Yeun as Ben, a character who invades Jong-su’s life like a hostile space alien; he’s Korean, but at the same time he also seems to come from another world. That ambiguity is central to Yeun’s first Korean-language performance, a compulsively watchable turn that feeds off the star’s intersectional identity.
As the actor recently explained it to IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, the character resonates for him because they both grapple with being out of place in an Asian context, and legibly Asian in an American context: “You think you’re American, and then sometimes you’ll walk down the street and they’ll remind you that they don’t think you are. Then you go to Korea and they don’t think you’re one of them, either. It reminds you that you’re just a man with no country.” As a result, Yeun feels that Ben is the most present person in the whole film, always negotiating his own existence: “He’s living in the reality of each moment, watching them, but maybe he’s observing that nobody else is living in the present with him.”
It’s a brilliant approach to the role, and it has the added benefit of allowing Yeun to openly wrestle with his own screen presence, negotiating if and where he can be a bonafide movie star. Can he carry a major dramatic role? Is he dazzling enough to seduce a big crowd and convince them all to disbelieve their own assumptions? Can he straddle multiple identities in the way that non-white-men are required to in order for Hollywood to bank on their appeal? The answer to all of these questions (and several more) is a resounding “yes.”
5. It Clarifies the Anger and Confusion We All Feel Right Now
Jong-su is shaken by his situation as the movie drifts into its second half. He can’t find a way out of his circumstances, and being pulled into Ben and Hae-mi’s rarefied air only strengthens the feeling that he’ll never be able to breathe it on his own. “His life,” Eric wrote, “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.”
He doesn’t know where Ben came from, and he can’t figure out where Hae-mi goes. He sees a world better than the one he lives in, and he’s tormented by his inability to get there; eventually, he starts to wonder if torment is the only way to get there. Jong-su sees that destruction and power go hand-in-hand, that power belongs to those who take what they want and destroy the rest, and he wrestles with the idea of adopting that approach for himself. At a time when monsters run the world and nothing makes, it’s hard to deny the temptation to burn it all down; better to ignite the flames than be stuck with the ashes. Short on easy answers and long on everything else, “Burning” leaves us wondering if it’s possible to blow everything up without catching on fire ourselves.
“Burning” is now playing in theaters.