THRILLER; 1hr 25min (Korean with subtitles)
STARRING: Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jun
Lee Jongsu (Yoo) is a country boy who despises his criminal father and drifts through life alone as a delivery man. He’s a feeling soul—having studied creative writing in college, his favourite author is William Faulkner—and he’s out of his depth from day one when he re-connects with the mercurial Haemi (Jun). The two attended school together, although according to Haemi, Jongsu shunned her at the time. Bearing no visible grudge, Haemi first convinces Jongsu to feed her (apparently invisible) cat while she travels to Africa in search of spiritual meaning, then seduces him with the insouciant ease of an instinctual coquette. The reclusive Jongsu is hooked and reeled.
Haemi’s not feeling it, more’s the pity: when she returns home to Seoul, it’s with the kind of guy in tow who’d cause any smitten man’s heart to plummet. Porsche-driving Ben (Yeun) is smooth, handsome and seriously rich (exactly by what means, he’s casually loath to explain), leaving Jongsu a sitting duck for disappointment. Puzzlingly, Ben seems to take a shine to his crushed and socially inept rival, with whom he appears to have nothing in common. The men and their blithely uncaring love object make an uncomfortable threesome, whose permutations darken when Ben reveals himself to Jongsu as an arsonist and Haemi disappears. For Jongsu, alone once again on the sidelines, possibilities blur into fevered speculation.
With patient artistry and cryptic work from his ensemble cast, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s 1983 short story “Barn Burning” shades in mood with almost imperceptible strokes. Little by little, Jongsu’s innocuous world deepens into a den of shadows. Has he tipped into covetous paranoia? Is Ben a harmless dilettante or wholly evil? Did Haemi fall or was she pushed? When ambiguity is both the means to an end and the thunderbolt of the end itself, the questions it raises will always be more compelling than any potential answer.