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Movie review: Love triangles and arson? 'Burning' is a South Korean gem

Ah-in Yoo, Jong-seo Jun and Steven Yeun in "Burning," opening Friday at Zinema 2.

It's been eight years since South Korean writer/director Chang-dong Lee released "Poetry." His latest is a drama twisting thrills, subtle chills and intimacy in a fascinating "love story."

Jong-su runs into Hae-mi in the town square. She says they grew up together, but he won't recognize her because she had plastic surgery. Over drinks, Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun) charms Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) with her pantomiming skills and talk of life exploration.

There are date-y vibes, and he agrees to watch her cat for a couple of weeks. When Hae-mi returns from her travels with Ben (Steven Yeun), the love story turns psychological thriller in two shakes of an unseen cat's tail.

Jong-seo Jun makes her film debut as Hae-mi, and her ability for physical and emotional expression is tops. There's an urgency about her, and a child-like and alluring ability to live in the present.

Dancing in a high-end restaurant or sharing about an African sunset, she moves freely and accesses her deepest emotions on a whim. There might be empathy mixed with suspicion.

Ah-in Yoo as Jong-su is sleepy-eyed and slack-jawed with a dragging gait through his father's barn and Hai-mei's apartment building, where he longingly stares at a South Korean skyline. Though, Yoo skillfully communicates that his character is disheveled on the outside, maybe more astute on the inside.

Steven Yeun ("The Walking Dead") as Ben is likable and handsome. His liveliness is an attractive contrast to Jong-su's sometimes emotional amorphousness, but you still catch a void through Ben's charm.

Energy comes watching twitches to their understated transformations.

Ben lightly taps Jong-su's chest. "You need to feel the bass right there," he says. "Feel it in your bones. It's the only way to be alive." Jong-su lets out a deep exhale, a sign of resuscitation, before folding into himself.

Lee and screenwriter Jungmi Oh seamlessly transported Haruki Murakami's 1992 short story "Barn Burning" from Japan to South Korea. And the location is a character of its own.

Cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong seems to be having the time of his life using the sky at dusk as his palette in a breathtaking scene that mixes Miles Davis and the South Korean countryside.

Hae-mi faces the land, undulating in moves for the men, and for the moment.

The camera moves downward, darkening her silhouette and accentuating the sky's gradient of colors from navy to yellow. Hae-mi glides in full-body pantomime moves, and the lens follows, matching her impromptu dance in a series of its own fluid movements and scans that play up angles and changing natural light. When the music stops abruptly, her innocent devastation is painful and poignant. The only sounds left are the trees and a South Korean flag bustling in the wind.

In this and throughout, the filmmakers communicate a love for their country, and feeling of menace as North Korean propaganda spouts over a nearby loudspeaker.

"Burning" packs a lot in almost two-and-a-half hours. It's a little long, but each frame feels intentional. There's symbolism in the destruction of benevolent structures, and parallels that may run close to home.

All of it adds to a underlying discomfort that ignites when someone goes missing, and burns slowly but surely a long wick leading to an intimate ending you won't soon forget.

Grade: A-


Starring: Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jun

Director: Chang-dong Lee

Writers: Jungmi Oh and Chang-dong Lee (screenplay); Haruki Murakami (short story "Barn Burning")

Time: 2:28

Rating: NR (some drug use and nudity, moderate violence)

Opening: Friday at Zinema 2

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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