Based on a short story by noted author Haruki Murakami, “Burning Barn” (the discovery of whose work took a film by Scud and a visit to Chiang Mai—cross-reference below), heat and flames of various sorts bind the scenes together. In really exceptional mystery-drama-social-divide masterpieces, their value is found in just how well what seems almost never is, is relayed to the viewers and the characters. There’s nary a frame that doesn’t achieve that lofty goal here.
In this instance, it is a superbly crafted three-hander where a pair of impoverished schoolyard chums become sudden lovers—years later—only to have both of their worlds changed by a chance encounter—one of many off-screen situations that are left to the moviegoer to fill in the blanks—by a beguiling, too-wealthy-by-half, somewhat older man who makes his living by “playing” and “burning down greenhouses” every couple of months. Tellingly, he is incapable of crying.
Director Lee Chang-dong and fellow screenwriter Oh Jung-mi have found the magic narrative dust to bring Murakami’s considerable vision (notably featuring a trademark cat—this one doesn’t talk, possible dreams, and a character who becomes stronger with her absence) to the big screen in—despite the runtime—a tautly crafted production that redefines the notion of less is more.
The only quibble from these recently revived eyes, is a pair of surveillance sequences where the rusting country pickup would be instantly spotted by the driver of the slinking-forward Porsche.
Playing the impulsive, impetuous Hae-mi, Jun Jeong-seo readily bares herself and her soul as she contemplates then lives the notion of Little Hunger/Great Hunger (brought to a truly wonderful conclusion as the disparate trio share a joint close to the North Korea DMZ—in the rural county of Pagu, there is an ostinato of communist propaganda blaring over the loudspeakers).
Her village chum who barely recognizes his longtime pal once she’d blossomed, comes in the thoughtful and—eventually—emotionally searing form of Yoo Ah-in’s portrayal of Jong-su. The man who would love to follow in William Faulkner’s footsteps is forced to work the family farm once his father loses his temper all the way to jail. Participating in the torching of his mother’s clothes once she had had enough and vanished from family life, has a spectacular encore that will linger in uneasy memory for a long time to come.
Steven Yun is well cast as Ben, the uncaring man who captures Hae-mi’s heart while the two travellers survive an airport bombing attack in Nairobi. All Jong-su can do is look on hopelessly, express undying love, then continue to take a back seat to his “living the life” girl. A shot of the luxury car parked near the dilapidated truck makes the economical-divide point better than any dialogue could.
The suspense increases exponentially as Hae-mi seems to have stepped back from both men: Ben’s line (not far from being The Great Gatsby himself), “disappearing like a puff of smoke” reveals as much as it further enhances the overall arc.
And finally, another tie that binds (whether or not as myth) sees seven-year-old Hae-mi desperately in need of a rescue from a deep, dry well that adds more fuel to the “Great Hunger” fire. By journey’s end there will be enough in Jong-su’s creative well that, like Murakami, will lead to some truly fantastic novels and stories long after the last flame of this one has flickered out. JWR