At the last Cannes Film Festival, the South Korean film director Lee Chang-dong did not win any prizes. Burning should have won the Golden Palm. So we should right that wrong by flocking to see his new film.
It turns out, after all, that it is possible to adapt one of the stories by the addictive Japanese author Haruki Murakami to the screen successfully. And even more impressive, to improve upon it. The director who managed to do this is not just anybody. Lee Chang-dong has made stunningly beautiful films before, like 2010’s Poetry. He is also a popular author in South Korea, and he was even the minister of culture for a brief period, though he took the job reluctantly.
He was attracted to a short story that Murakami had given the same title as a short story by the American author William Faulkner, whom he admires. Lee Chang-dong was especially interested in the many plot holes and the pure mystery.
In the hands of masters, film lends itself to secrecy very well, it is perfect for blurring the border between illusion and reality, for generating meaning that remains unspoken, and for its power to suggest that which is not there or is there but remains barely perceptible.
Two young men both fall in love with the same unreachable woman, Hae-mi. There is something wrong with both of them, but they are marked more by their differences than their similarities. Jong-su is poor and surly, lives in the countryside and wants to write a novel one day. Ben is rich and lives in Gangnam, the Beverly Hills of Seoul.
After Hae-mi’s sudden disappearance, Jong-su makes it a point of honour to thwart Ben’s disturbing habit of burning down greenhouses. The superlatively acted Burning contains thriller elements, but does not allow itself to be reduced to a whodunit and not even to a mystery about what happened precisely.
The pleasure of this film lies in its impenetrability and the refinement of almost every single shot and the pure cinematic expression of youthful rage that results from an indefinable feeling of powerlessness and of the inability to describe the problem. I would have given you the Golden Palm, Lee Chang-dong.