* * * * (out of five)
I haven’t seen any of the previous films of Chang-dong Lee, but on the basis of Burning, which arrives in Australia with huge global critical praise and thirty-four international awards, I’ll be seeking them out. Profound, mesmerising, threatening and beautiful, this slow-burn (sorry!) social thriller is evocative of the work of Asghar Farhadi; it’s got a mysterious and very suspenseful story to tell, but puts character first, along with strong thematic ideas.
Lee seems to have modern Korean youth on his mind; his lead character, Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) is a lost soul, a young man who can’t really find his place in Paju, a city close to North Korea and the Demilitarized Zone (used to eerie effect in the film). A farmer’s son with the desire, but not the drive, to write a novel, one day he bumps into an old high-school acquaintance, Shin (Jong-seo Jun) and his fortunes seem to change – until she meets the suave, urbane Ben (magnificently played by Steven Yeun). Then things grow darker.
There are so many reference points to this story, from myriad sources; specifically, it’s based on the short story Barn Burning by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, which itself was based on William Faulkner’s short story of the same name. You’ll feel a strong sense of neo-noir at work, tugging against, or alongside, a neorealist examination of class divide. There’s a lot going on, and the film takes its time, clocking in at two and a half hours, but it’s exceptionally satisfying. Absolutely worth your entire afternoon, and at the cinema: some of the sequences are ravishing.