Desire, ravenous and ineffable, shudders through “Burning,” the latest from the great South Korean director Chang-dong Lee. The film was selected as South Korea's Oscar entry for best foreign-language film.

Share story

Movie review

One of the most beautiful scenes in a movie this year — in many years — comes midway through “Burning.” Two men and a woman are lazing around outside a home. They’re in the South Korean countryside, near the border with North Korea, where the squawk of propaganda drifts in and out from loudspeakers. Now, though, in the velvety dusk light, the sound of Miles Davis’ ethereal trumpet fills the air, and the woman begins swaying, taking off her shirt. She is dancing for the men, but mostly she’s dancing in what feels like ecstatic communion between her and the world.

Desire, ravenous and ineffable, shudders through “Burning,” the latest from the great South Korean director Chang-dong Lee. Set in the present, the movie involves the complicated, increasingly fraught relationships among three characters whose lives are tragically engulfed as desire gives way to rage. The story has the quality of a mystery thriller — somebody goes missing, somebody else tries to figure out why — one accompanied by the drumbeat of politics. The larger, more agonizing question here, though, involves what it means to live in a divided, profoundly isolating world that relentlessly drives a wedge between the self and others.

The story opens the day that a young delivery man, Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), meets a woman, Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), in a chaotic, anonymous city. She works as a store barker, dancing in scanty clothing while tempting shoppers with raffle prizes. Haemi hails Jongsu and reveals that they know each other from their hometown — he has no memory of her — then blurts out that she’s had plastic surgery. Later, she reminds him that when they were young he once crossed a street to tell her she was ugly, news she casually delivers while searching for a reaction that never comes.

Despite his seeming indifference to Haemi, he responds to her friendliness, and before long they’re in bed. This nascent intimacy abruptly ends when she leaves on a trip. When she returns with a wealthy enigma, Ben (Steven Yeun), the three (all sensational) form an awkward triangle, a configuration that derails Jongsu.

This brilliant movie is based on “Barn Burning,” a 1992 short story by Haruki Murakami that throbs with unspoken menace and shares its title with a far more blatantly violent 1939 story by William Faulkner. Lee nods at Faulkner (a favorite author of Jongsu whom Ben begins reading), but takes most of his cues from Murakami’s story. Lee retains its central triangle and some details, while making it his own. Mostly, Lee slowly foregrounds the uneasy violence that flickers through the Murakami to stunning, devastating effect.

_____

“Burning,” with Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, Jeon Jong-seo, Kim Soo-kyung, Choi Seung-ho. Directed by Lee Chang-dong, from a screenplay by Lee and Oh Jung-mi. 148 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In Korean, with English subtitles. Opens Dec. 7 at Northwest Film Forum. The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.