Whilst slick action films, sickly romantic comedies and stylish horrors may dominate at the box office, Lee Chang-dong is arguably the greatest living Korean director. Over a career which has so far spanned three decades, he has made some of the most thoughtful, beautiful and challenging films coming out of the East. The likes of Peppermint Candy, Oasis and Poetry have garnered multiple awards around the world and almost universal critical acclaim. His new film, Burning, is another gem.
Jong-soo (Ah-In Yoo), a budding writer, works a succession of part-time jobs in a city near the Korean Demarcation Zone. One day he bumps into Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), a childhood neighbour he struggles to remember at first but who remembers him vividly. After spending the night together, she leaves for Africa and he takes care of her cat. When Hae-mi returns, she’s accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun), a mysterious playboy. Much to Jong-soo’s dismay, the the pair start a relationship and over time he becomes increasingly suspicious of the rich stranger.
Adapted from Barn Burning, a short story by Haruki Murakami, Burning is a haunting and poetic mystery about class, loneliness, alienation and memory. The ambiguity of the story allows Lee to explore and immerse himself in in his favourite subjects whilst building up layers of intrigue and uncertainty. There’s some stunning cinematography, including an unforgettable sunset sequence, courtesy of Kyung-pyo Hong. Burning is an low-key thriller which almost imperceptibly builds up tension through its offbeat drama.
Burning screens at London Film Festival on 20 October and will be in cinemas in February.