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Four and a half stars

Director Lee Chang-dong

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

Rating M

Running time 148 minutes

Verdict A thriller so sharply-observed, it could scar

THIS slow-burning psychological drama is reminiscent of the old boiling frog fable — by the time you fully understand what’s going on, you’ve already been scalded.

That makes director Lee Chang-dong’s near-flawless adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning very difficult to write about.

If ever a film should be tackled “cold”, Burning is it. But here’s a spoiler-free synopsis.

Chang-dong’s haunting, Gatsby-ish love triangle is set in and around the South Korean city of Paju, which is close to the border with North Korea (at several points in the story, the hermit kingdom’s propaganda broadcasts ring out across the paddocks).

It’s told from the point of view of odd-job man and would-be author Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), who bumps into a childhood friend, Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), outside a department store where she is employed as a dancer-spruiker.

Jong-su doesn’t immediately recognise Hae-mi, because she has had plastic surgery. But it doesn’t take him long to fall for the charming yet somehow untethered free spirit.

When Hae-mi travels to Africa, for a long-planned holiday, Jong-Su agrees to look after her elusive cat.

Stuck at Nairobi airport for three days due to a terrorist scare, Hae-mi finally returns — with the rich, smug, enigmatic Ben (Steven Yeun) in tow.

A displaced Jong-su watches from the sidelines, occasionally making pithy observations about the origin and nature of Ben’s privilege, as an awkward three-way friendship develops.

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Slowly, inexorably the tension mounts.

There’s a subtle but significant shift in allegiances when Ben and Hae-mi visit Jong-su at his family home, where he is tending the animals while his volatile father is in prison over a
legal dispute.

When Hae-mi dances, topless, in the moonlight, it’s hard to decide which of the young men’s responses is more disturbing: Ben’s insouciance or Jong-su’s angry disapproval.

From this point, Hae-mi stops returning Jong-Su’s calls. And his quest to find her becomes increasingly obsessive.

All three lead performances are compelling.

A rich and nuanced study of class, privilege, self-reinvention, justice and revenge told with extraordinary skill and discipline, Burning is
fuelled by Mowg’s brooding score

By toying with genre expectations, Chang-dong gets right inside movie goers’ heads.

Uneasy, ambiguous, riveting.

Opens Thursday; sneak previews today

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