Burning ★★★★

Lee Chang-dong's made a remarkably elusive take on Murakami's 20-page short story. Since much of the prose was truncated in first-person, it's now given a lot more interpretive depth at 148 minutes. The segment before carefree Hae-mi goes to Africa, romances with timorous writer Jong-su, and discloses the bullying she experienced, is entirely invented. The same goes for Lee's exquisite rendition to use the visual medium as an eponymous, smoldering slow-burn. Just wait until it's submerged in flames.

From the get-go, this reveals a poignantly explicated theme of social detachment. Which is what struck me a lot more than its other thematic signifiers: class privilege, socioeconomic divide, carnal jealousy, craving revenge, etc. In fact, the only time Murakami's story ever alluded to the secluded self is the "Barn Burning" confession, and now it's woven into a triumvirate character-arc. Whether it's Ah-in's superb portrayal of slack-jawed aloofness, to Jong-seo's indigent desire for affection, and the rich, enigmatic Ben who has a bimonthly interest for burning greenhouses.

I do feel there's additional portions here that aren't as invigorating. Such as the criminal trial that forces Jong-su to tend the livestock, because his father may be sent to prison. Nor does the heavy-handed symbolism of disappearance/resurface—like Hae-mi's pink wristwatch and her cat Boil, have the ambiguous smolder of Jong-su's withdrawal into someone responsive. If anything, the one generational fallacy that did seem moving, is the sole sequence when Jong-su's mother attempts to reconnect with him and appears more interested at her cell phone.

The craftsmanship, though, is just exquisitely done. As what had initially appeared to be Jong-su's acquiescent character-study, is turned into a private liaison with Hae-mi, and then a nerve-wracking detective thriller when tailgating Ben's Porsche. And even with Hae-mi's disappearance by the mid-point, it's notable how the two-hander never wanes, certainly because the tension has reached a suspenseful point I'd become invested in.

Behind the camera it's even more exquisite, as Lee alternates between subtle observances of Ah-in's passive bewilderment, and filtering focus on the sandstone sky. Then comes Mowg's impeccable, bass-heavy drone score during Hae-mi's "Great Hunger" dance or Jong-su frantically jogging in search for a greenhouse. Having a neighbourhood that's full of them, he dedicates numerous hours of the day in search for clues.

The ultimate endgame is justifiably worth a wait. As what had embered for so long is ignited beyond belief. (I swear, that's the final pun.) I was gripped by this thoroughly investing showdown between the eager minds of William Faulkner and The Great Gatsby. At least that's what's figuratively posited, or in Jong-su's case, would have you believe. Enigma is a compelling facet to create unease.

Nick Vass liked this review