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Inside This Deceptively Simple Story Lurks A 'Burning' Psychological Thriller


This is FRESH AIR. In this year's foreign language film Oscar race, South Korea will be represented by the drama "Burning," written and directed by Lee Chang-dong. The movie, adapted from a short story, by Haruki Murakami is a psychological thriller about three young characters, one of whom is played by the popular Korean-American actor Steven Yeun. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Burning" is the most absorbing new movie I've seen this year and also the most enigmatic. The director Lee Chang-dong tells a deceptively simple story about two young men and the young woman who brings them together, with the kind of psychological ambiguity that can make other movies feel clunky and diagrammed by comparison. Just when you think you've figured out what kind of movie "Burning" is - a romantic triangle, a crime thriller, a dark comedy of class rage - it suddenly changes shape and slips through your fingers. Lee and his co-writer, Oh Jungmi, adapted the screenplay from "Barn Burning," a 1983 short story by Haruki Murakami, which they have skillfully expanded and transplanted from Japan to South Korea.

The popular Korean actor Yoo Ah-in stars as Jong-su, a quiet, withdrawn young man, an aspiring writer who lives on his father's farm in a small town located near the border with North Korea. In the opening scene, though, he's in Seoul working a part-time delivery job when he runs into Hae-mi, a young woman played by Jeon Jong-seo, whom he used to know when they were children. Hae-mi is friendly, flirtatious and a bit volatile. And before long, they're having sex in her cramped apartment, an encounter that seems to mean much more to Jong-su than it does to her.

Not long afterward, Hae-mi begins seeing Ben, a handsome, well-dressed man who drives a Porsche and lives in Seoul's famously rich Gangnam District. Is Ben Hae-mi's new boyfriend? It's not entirely clear. And either way, Hae-mi insists on keeping Jong-su around. As the three of them hang out, Ben's air of casual entitlement becomes ever more oppressive. He's unfailingly polite, but you can sense the assumed superiority in his little chuckles and half smiles, as well as a chilling lack of emotion that verges on sociopathic. Ben is played by the Korean-American actor Steven Yeun, known for his work on "The Walking Dead." And it's a brilliant stroke of casting. Yeun delivers his performance entirely in Korean, but his American celebrity status lends him the subtle affect of an outsider, making him seem lofty and unreachable.

But all three performances are flawless. Jeon Jong-seo, in a heartbreaking screen debut, plays Hae-mi as a lost, lonely woman with a startling capacity for emotion. As the movie's inarticulate male lead, Yoo Ah-in has, in some ways, the trickiest task. But he reaches almost subterranean depths of feeling. Even when his character Jong-su says nothing, which is most of the time, you feel his awkwardness, jealousy and insecurity. Most intriguingly, you sense his inner conflict - not just his desire for Hae-mi but also his strange fascination with Ben, who can be as attractive as he is repellent.

The characters' bonds are so emotionally and psychologically complex that I could have gladly watched their dynamics subtly play out for hours. But shortly after Ben makes a strange personal admission that illuminates the meaning of the title, "Burning" gradually shifts into a darker, more menacing psycho-thriller register. Someone disappears without explanation, seemingly insignificant details from the story's first half begin to take on frightening implications in the second. Jong-su tries to figure out what's going on. But with each new lead, the ground seems to shift beneath his feet.

At times, we hear the sounds of North Korean propaganda blasting from the loudspeakers across the border, a detail that has led some to interpret "Burning" as a parable of political reunification. Others have read the movie as a more straightforward study of class resentment, underscored by the contrast between Ben's elegant apartment and the run-down farmhouse that Jong-su calls home. Ben is like a modern-day, Korean Gatsby, Jong-su says. He himself feels a deep affinity with his favorite writer, William Faulkner, a reference that provides a grim clue as to where the story is headed.

Lee Chang-dong, a major figure in world cinema, previously directed the dramas "Secret Sunshine" and "Poetry," which followed their characters on intensely harrowing emotional journeys, marked by the faint possibility of transcendence. "Burning" is also invested in a search for deeper meaning. But transcendence here seems even more elusive. To me, the world is a mystery, Jong-su says, shortly before the movie reaches its tense, frightening and diabolically slippery finale. "Burning" knows that the most compelling mysteries are the ones that can never be solved.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how U.S. law enforcement failed to see the threat of white nationalism and now doesn't know how to stop it. My guest will be Janet Reitman. We'll talk about her article in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. She reports that domestic counterterrorism strategy has focused on Islamic extremists and ignored the rising danger of far-right extremists. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "MILESTONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.