Burning ★★★½

Part of My Silk Road Challenge (South Korea)

I was impressed by writer-director Lee Chang-dong's 2010 drama "Poetry" as part of my "March Around the World" challenge for 2018, and I was eager to see this new release as part of the 2019 challenge. However, my library only ordered a limited number of DVDs, and it took me till now to get a copy. For that reason, I've included it within this regional challenge.

The film is based upon the 1983 short story "Barn Burning" written by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. To get us started, we see a young man named Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) as he delivers some sportswear to a shop on a busy Seoul street. He doesn't recognize the girl offering a prize-drawing promotion in front of the shop, but she knows him. She's Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who lived in the same rural neighborhood near Paju City when they were kids.

The two meet for a smoke during Shin's break and do some catching up. When Lee finished his compulsory military service, he went to college. Now he's working part-time and trying to write a novel on the side. Shin had plastic surgery to make her pretty. Now she works as a model for promotions and likes it because the job is physical, not mental. The two arrange to go out for a drink after work.

Over beers that evening, Shin tells Lee she plans to travel to Africa. She's been saving up for it. She's also been learning pantomime skills just for fun. And she talks about the "Great Hunger" to know the meaning of life, before she asks Lee to look after her cat while she is away. Then, she falls asleep while he pays the bar bill, obviously exhausted.

The next day, Lee meets Shin to see her apartment, but he announces he is moving back to Paju. His father was raising cows but ran into trouble, and now Lee has been asked to return and look after the family home. Lee is impressed by the view of Seoul from Shin's apartment building, although her room faces the wrong way and gets little sunlight. They look for her cat 'Boil,' so named because she found him in a boiler room, but it is apparently in hiding. Lee suspects there really is no cat, just a ploy to get him to visit.

Then, Shin asks Lee if he remembers calling her ugly in junior high school. He doesn't, so she asks what he thinks of her now and they share a kiss. That leads to clothes coming off and some sex after she offers him a condom. Momentarily, the sunlight reflects off Seoul Tower into Shin's room as they make love.

On a rainy day, Lee returns to his home in Paju. It is filled with photographic memories and clutter. He feeds a hungry cow in the barn. Then he tries to sleep, only to be awakened by a phone call and hang-up late at night. The next day, he starts up his father's old truck, and is happy to find it still works. He drives it back to Shin's flat to put food and water out for her cat, and from what he sees in the litter box, the cat really does exist. He then masturbates while looking at a photo of Shin.

Lee later attends the court hearing where his father Lee Yong-seok (Choi Seung-ho) has been accused of assaulting a government official. The defense lawyer asks Lee to talk to his dad about writing a letter of apology to the victim. It could help get a lighter sentence, but the old farmer is a stubborn man. Then, after two weeks of caring for the "invisible cat," Lee gets a call from Shin in Kenya. She was delayed three days in Nairobi due to a bombing, but now she's coming home. She asks Lee to meet her at Seoul's Gimpo Airport.

The reunion at the arrival gate doesn't go exactly as Lee planned. Shin has returned with a new friend named Ben (Steven Yeun), whom she bonded with during their ordeal at Nairobi Airport. Because Lee is hungry for Korean food, the three drive in Lee's truck to a Seoul restaurant that serves excellent tripe. En route, Ben calls his mother to say he made it back safely.

During their meal, Shin describes a sunset she saw over the desert that brought her to tears. Ben claims he has never cried in his life. He adds that he "plays" for a living instead of working, although he doesn't define exactly what that might involve. Then he says that because Lee is a writer, he might be interested in hearing Ben's life story sometime. But when a friend brings Ben's Porsche to the restaurant, it's Ben who drives Shin home, not Lee.

So begins an odd triangular relationship. None of the three young adults seems to have a direction in life. Lee goes to a job interview but walks out when he sees how regimented the workplace is. He tries working on his novel, but has no clear idea what he wants to write. He arranges to sell the farm's lonely cow, and he tries to get neighbors to sign a petition to the court in support of his father's character, but that's the most initiative we ever see from him.

Ben, on the other hand, lives in a luxury condominium and has enough money not to need to work. While visiting Lee's farm one day with Shin and smoking some pot, he tells them about one of his hobbies. Every two months or so, he locates an abandoned greenhouse made of vinyl on a wooden frame. He douses it with kerosene and sets it on fire. Within minutes the structure burns down, leaving no trace that it ever existed. He delights in the idea that he can so easily make something disappear. And his next torch job, he announces, will be somewhere near Paju.

For her part, Shin lives in a world of memories and dreams, with no interest in working or even living, for that matter. She sometimes wishes she could simply disappear -- not die, but just cease to exist. She tells Lee she remembers him saving her when she fell down a well as a child. Lee recalls nothing of the sort, and there is no well that could have been the location she describes. Lee suspects that, like the cat, her memories are mostly fabrications. Still, he's falling in love with her, so the "triangle" presents a barrier the pursuit of his romantic interests.

Lee Chang-dong uses a lot of innuendo and misdirection to build this story to it's climax and resolution of the unbalanced three-way friendship. But the resolution is a good one, and a bit shocking, even if not entirely unpredictable. At Cannes, the FIPRESCI Prize went to director Lee, along with a Palme d'Or nomination, while art director Shin Jum-hee won the Vulcain Prize for the Technical Artist. A lot of good work is coming out of Korea and this is certainly indicative of the high degree of talent there on both sides of the camera. See it for sure.

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