“Burn­ing,” In mas­ter­ful rage sim­mers in Seoul

Sun.Star Cebu Weekend - - Film - Jake Coyle AP Film Writer

In the smol­der­ing cen­ter­piece of Chang-dong Lee's mas­terly "Burn­ing" — a mourn­ful cry of a movie — a young, tragic South Korean woman named Haemi (an ex­quis­ite Jun Jong-seo) dances be­fore two men at twi­light while Miles Davis floats bluely from a nearby car ra­dio. The Korean coun­try­side stretches north­ward be­hind her. Her arms sway low and then high.

It's a dance she has learned from the Bush­men dur­ing a re­cent trip to Africa. She calls it the dance of Great Hunger, and she's ec­static as she moves. But, as if some­thing catches her and brings her back down to earth, she fin­ishes in tears.

"Burn­ing," the South Korean di­rec­tor's sixth fea­ture film (and first in eight years), sways with a mys­te­ri­ous heartache. It's os­ten­si­bly a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller, loosely adapted from a 1992 short story by Haruki Mu­rakami, but ev­ery plot turn burns with an ex­is­ten­tial sor­row. Haemi and the two men watch­ing her in that scene — her child­hood friend Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) and her wealthy lover Ben (Steven Yeun, of the "Walk­ing Dead") — form the kind of tri­an­gle that could fuel any noir. But it's the help­less­ness and rage that they share, which reaches such a stun­ning crescendo in Haemi's dance, that slowly singes all through "Burn­ing."

Lee's film, this year's South Korean Os­car sub­mis­sion, was the sen­sa­tion of the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val in May (though it went home prize­less) and it's one of the best of the year. Jongsu is the movie's pro­tag­o­nist: a slow-wit­ted as­pir­ing writer who moves home to his fa­ther's live­stock

farm (it con­sists of lit­tle more than a lone cow) in the border town of Paju north­west of Seoul. His fa­ther, a stub­born brute who long ago chased off Jongsu's mother and sis­ter, has been im­pris­oned for as­sault­ing a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial.

Be­fore re­turn­ing home, Jongsu runs into Haemi, who's work­ing scant­ily dressed on the side­walk, hold­ing raf­fles that award cheap prizes. Jongsu, ret­i­cent and awk­ward, barely bats an eye when she re­minds him they grew up to­gether in Paju. Their past to­gether seems a com­fort to Haemi, who a lit­tle later draws Jongsu back to her tiny apart­ment. Dur­ing their love­mak­ing, Jongsu breathes anx­iously while star­ing at a mo­men­tary flicker of re­flec­tion that, Haemi has told him, is the only sun the apart­ment gets.

When Haemi, a rest­less, fa­tal­is­tic soul in search of some­thing more, flies to Africa, she re­turns — to Jongsu's dis­ap­point­ment — with Ben. He's preter­nat­u­rally suave, drives a Porsche and lives in the fash­ion­able Seoul neigh­bor­hood of Gang­nam. If Jongsu is trapped in the old Korea, Ben is a sym­bol of the new. "He's the Great Gatsby," says the awed Jongsu.

But there's also some­thing dis­turb­ing about Ben whose in­ter­est in the far poorer Haemi and Jongsu (whom he warmly be­friends while steal­ing Haemi's af­fec­tion) im­me­di­ately arouses our sus­pi­cions. While Haemi is danc­ing, Ben shares a dark se­cret with Jongsu. Soon af­ter, Haemi dis­ap­pears, and Jongsu is lured into a des­per­ate, ob­ses­sive mis­sion to find her. In his fa­ther's old truck he tails Ben's sports car; across the ru­ral out­skirts of Paju he runs, fran­ti­cally search­ing for signs of the crime he's in­creas­ingly sure hap­pened.

These scenes, criss­cross­ing the Korean coun­try­side, fur­ther the im­pres­sion that Lee is tak­ing a view of his coun­try as a whole. But there are touches that ex­pand Lee's pa­tient tale. A TV in the fore­ground flick­ers with news of the Korean youth un­em­ploy­ment rate and of Trump. Asked about what story he's writ­ing, Jongsu shrugs help­lessly: "To me, the world is a mys­tery."

Some­thing is wrong in the world of "Burn­ing," even if it can't quite be found or ar­tic­u­lated. Lee has drawn his film with clas­sic archetypes of class divi­sion, but he's reach­ing fur­ther — grasp­ing, like Jongsu, to hold on to some­thing. He finds no an­swers, and I'm not sure the film's vi­o­lent con­clu­sion quite does jus­tice to the care­fully cal­i­brated mys­ter­ies that came be­fore it. But like Haemi's melan­choly dance in the half-light, Lee has beau­ti­fully, wrench­ingly sum­moned an unshakeable sense of dis­quiet.

Images: Well Go USA En­ter­tain­ment via AP

Steven Yuen in a scene from "Burn­ing."

Jong-seo Jeon

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