Director: Lee Chang-dong.
The movie shocked me to the core. When I read in the opening titles that it's an adaptation of Haruki Murakami's short story, I was perplexed. I didn't expect a Korean adaptation of a Japanese text, considering the historical tensions between the two nations since WWII.
Moreover, I was extremely surprised by the Korean essence of the film: the locations and their context, such as the farm near the border with North Korea where we can hear propaganda from across the border, and Gangnam-gu in Seoul, representing a higher class contrast to the farm. The cinematic portrayal of class warfare, a common theme in Korean contemporary cinema, where the lower-class protagonist kills the upper-class antagonist, was also noteworthy. Additionally, the heart-breaking scene with the mother and the obsession with artificial beauty and plastic surgery added to the localization of the story in Korea. These elements are not present in Murakami's story "Barn Burning."
After reading the short story on which it is based, in my personal opinion, the film not only surpasses the short story but also serves as the best cinematic homage to Murakami's body of work that I've ever seen.
In the short story, the female character is merely a tool for the protagonist to meet the antagonist. She lacks personality, and when she disappears, I didn't care. However, in the film, she is amazing. She exhibits deep inner conflicts and quirkiness, and her fatal journey to find meaning in life reminded me of Naoko from Norwegian Wood, particularly when she talks about the "little hunger" and the "big hunger." When she disappears, I feel deeply for her and for the emotional spiral of the protagonist. Furthermore, the protagonist of the film, Lee Jong-su, embodies characteristics from many of Murakami's protagonists—a young man with few opinions, observing how things fall apart around him with a curiosity that both fulfills and leads him to oblivion.
The film pays homage to Murakami's writing through various elements, such as mysterious cats, references to classical Western literary works (like William Faulkner), an estranged father figure, young men's sexuality and emotional masturbation, the disappearance of the female character, and many other small details throughout the film.
I could go on, but this review is already quite lengthy. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed watching "Burning" and highly recommend it to anyone.
I would like to conclude with an observation about the directing and editing: the film strikes a perfect balance between action and set-pieces. Despite its 148-minute runtime, it feels shorter because the beautiful set-pieces are soothing and enjoyable. Even during slower moments, the film remains captivating with its poetic depth, without coming across as patronizing. The creative freedom given to director Lee Chang-dong in this production is evident and made me envious.
Verdict: 5 / 5 ★ - outstanding.