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With: Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo, Steven Yeun
Written by: Oh Jungmi, Lee Chang-dong, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami
Directed by: Lee Chang-dong
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Korean with English subtitles
Running Time: 148
Date: 11/16/2018

Burning (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Greenhouse Affecting

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Opening today in Bay Area theaters, the mysterious, entrancing Burning is the latest from South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine, Poetry); it's like a weird dream you'll want to try and remember after waking up.

Burning is based on the great Japanese author Haruki Murakami's short story "Barn Burning," which first appeared in English in the New Yorker in 1992, and then in the 1993 collection The Elephant Vanishes.

Whereas movies based on novels are frequently forced to cut and alter their source material, movies based on short stories — like Away from Her or Arrival — can explore more deeply.

Relying less on plot points than on moments, stories can spread out into a movie, like the nooks and crannies of a waffle filling with syrup.

As with Lee's Poetry, which was released here in 2011, Burning has a knack for letting bits of the story sneak up on us in-between moments of searching and contemplating.

Burning focuses on three characters. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) seems to work odd jobs and is first seen making a delivery when he runs into an old schoolmate, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo, in a fine debut performance).

The casting here is spot-on, with the interesting decision to make Jong-su somewhat slack-jawed and befuddled; in Murakami's story, the character is the narrator and isn't really described, but certain passages in the prose suggest that this is a good fit.

Jong-su and Hae-mi go to dinner. She begins performing a mime routine, peeling and eating tangerines. She explains that the trick is not to pretend that the tangerines are there, but to forget that they are not there.

With not too much effort, this logic can be applied to the rest of the movie.

Hae-mi announces that she's saved up for a trip to Africa, and asks Jong-su to look after her cat, Boil (named because he was found in the boiler room), while she's gone. He agrees, and they make love. While he never actually sees the cat, he becomes enraptured by a magical play of light that occurs each day in her apartment.

She returns from Africa, with the handsome, reticent, sportscar-driving Ben (Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead) in tow. The movie never defines this relationship, but, like Truffaut's Jules and Jim, suggests that each man has something different to offer Hae-mi.

Later, Jong-su has taken over his father's small farm, and Ben and Hae-mi stop by for an impromptu visit. They drink and smoke pot, and Ben off-handedly tells Jong-su that he likes to burn greenhouses (not barns, as in the story) to the ground.

Jong-su learns that Ben burns a greenhouse once about every two months, that it's almost time for another, and that he's already selected a greenhouse close by.

It wouldn't do to say any more, since Lee goes to great lengths to preserve the enigma of Murakami's story, although he goes for a more pointed, yet fitting, ending.

Lee's greatest achievement is that he creates and sustains a world that feels realistic, but which allows for strange moments like the miming of tangerines and a confession about burning greenhouses to naturally emerge.

In Poetry, he favored an ill-fitting hand-held camera, but in Burning, he keeps things smoother, more fluid.

Not even the running time, which nearly reaches the 2-1/2 hour mark, is a problem. Certain subplots, such as Jong-su's father being in jail, don't really add much, but also don't detract.

Like the best short stories, the events of Burning don't connect in any obvious way, but if one slows down and lets one's mind roam free, connections exist. And one can discover that, in truth, the smallest, oddest things in life oftentimes mean the most.

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