I can’t shake this Korean mystery noir from my mind, like it’s burned on my retina. There’s a haunting, melancholy tension throughout and you can’t totally grasp what’s going on.
But that’s also the situation of the lead character Jongsu (Ah-In Yoo), who becomes a kind of patsy in a cruel game. He’s a delivery boy in busy Seoul who develops a crush on Haemi, a beautiful woman doing some modelling outside a department store, who introduces herself to him as a childhood friend, from his village.
Although he barely remembers her, Jongsu is more than happy to hang around with Haemi – he can’t quite believe his luck, really – and agrees to feed her cat while she goes on a long-awaited trip to Africa.
Jongsu, a budding novelist in his spare time, dutifully feeds the cat, although the puss never seems to be around when he visits her tiny apartment. When he gets a call to pick Haemi (newcomer Jong-Seo Jun) up at the airport, he’s thrilled but it turns to disappointment when she skips in to the arrival hall with a handsome man named Ben (Steven Yeun) she claims to have met on the flight.
A tentative triangle develops, and Jongsu begins to feel a gooseberry as Steven keeps turning up in his Porsche – Steven lives in a swish flat in the upmarket area of Gagnam (yes, the one immortalised in the Gagnam Style song).
When they visit Jongsu back in his village, the charming Ben confesses he has a strange, destructive hobby that shocks Jongsu and leaves him in turmoil.
I can’t say more than that, mainly because it remains a mystery, a fluid, ungraspable sleight of hand film that reminded me of Hitchcock, a weird sort of Strangers on a Train and Vertigo vibe. But I also loved its Asian modernity, the city and the countryside, and the insistent, edgy, score by Mowg.
Burning is based on a Murakami short story and takes some inspiration from William Faulkner, whom Jongsu admires and yet it’s also about class, money, youth, masculinity and envy without ever directly addressing any of these.
Directed by Lee Chang-Dong, I can only think it’s not being one of the Foreign Language nominees this year because people can’t quite grasp it. But that’s its beauty.