Burning ★★★★½

Relevant portion excerpted from my fifth Cannes dispatch:

Expectations can indeed be thrillingly confounded. But often equally satisfying is seeing promise fulfilled, as is the case with Lee Chang-dong’s standout competition entry Burning, the South Korean director’s first film in eight years and a consensus masterpiece, if its average 3.8 rating on the Screen International jury grid (surpassing Toni Erdmann’s previous record of 3.7) is any indication. A steady follow-shot picks up Jonhsu (Yoo Ah-in), a barely-employed, aspiring writer, as he makes a delivery to a Seoul department store blowout sale, but ends up leaving with Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), a dancer who claims to have known him from his rural hometown. An uneasy tryst in a cramped apartment follows soon after, with Lee’s camera craning around the lovers to settle on a fringe of light reflected by a nearby tower.

“What kind of story are you writing?” someone asks the listless protagonist, whose floating discontent is palpable from frame one. Adapted (and expanded) from Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” and co-written with Oh Jung-Mi, Lee’s film is a sinuous evocation of a thriller, yet somehow devoid of outright incident. A trip to Africa leaves Jonhsu with the task of feeding Haemi’s notoriously shy cat, whom he never sees; her return with Ben (Steven Yuen), wealthy, worldly and mysterious (a Korean Gatsby, in Jonhsu’s assessment), leaves him with a new acquaintance, but without a girlfriend. Meanwhile, Lee’s camera moves with assurance, capturing an awkward dance and the pulsing gyrations of a club with equal acuity. A shared joint between the three at sunset—the starting point of Murakami’s story—occasions two revelations: Haemi’s melancholy desire to “vanish like a sunset” and Ben’s aberrant obsession with burning abandon greenhouses. (The “best pace”? One every two months, Ben tells a slack-jawed Jonhsu.) When two weeks later, Jonhsu runs into Ben but remains unable to reach Haemi, the details quiver with possibility. Hong Kyung-pyo’s limpid cinematography renders noir-ish stalkings and sordid thriller scenarios in frigid shades of blue and burnished orange; Kim Da-won’s bass-y, nerve-jangling score quickens the pulse; a sense of malice thrums beneath placid surfaces and smooth exteriors. Always, Lee’s patient, expansive vision aims to reveal. If Secret Sunshine was a methodical excavation of melodrama, Burning is a masterful explication of “simultaneous existence.” It’s a film that understands the power of suggestion—the force of a silent, fiery nightmare—and “rings to the very bones.”

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