Film history, which mutates every week, has given us a sub-species of the mystery genre that knows how to keep a secret, even from itself.
Films in that category resemble riddles with multiple-choice answers, yet none of the choices can be trusted. “The Big Sleep” and “Touch of Evil” don’t care about tidy solutions to knotty questions of who killed who. Graver masterworks from “L’Avventura” to “Cache” deal with what happens outside the usual story frame of guilt and innocence. These are wildly different movies, but they’re all compelled by how their characters respond to not knowing the answers.
“Burning” is like that, too. A languorous, catlike psychological puzzle from one of the essential international masters, Lee Chang-dong, it’s set in contemporary South Korea, where college graduates scrounge for employment and class resentments seethe.
The set-up is pure noir. On a street in Seoul, would-be fiction writer Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) has a chance meeting with Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend now working part-time as a sidewalk dancer giving away raffle tickets. Their reunion quickly becomes a hook-up, more meaningful to him than to her. Then Hae-mi takes off for a trip to Africa, leaving Jong-su to take care of her elusive cat, who never seems to come out from under the bed.
The slow burn of “Burning” gathers momentum once she returns, with a louche, arrogant lover in tow. This man, Ben (Steven Yeun of “The Walking Dead”), drips with conspicuous wealth, from his Porsche to his sleek pad in the fashionable Gangnam District neighborhood. “He’s the Great Gatsby,” Jong-su says, observing that South Korea, like America, is weirdly full of “mysterious people who are young and rich … but you don’t know what they really do.”
At first the writer’s sexual jealousy is tempered by his entry into Ben’s world, so unlike his own. Jong-su’s father, angry and lost, is being sentenced for assault and battery; the family farm, which includes a single cow, offers Jong-su a place to exist but not to live. Ben and Hae-mi pay an unexpected visit to the rural community where Hae-mi and Jong-su grew up. On the farmhouse patio, with the smell of cow manure wafting by, the three watch the sunset. Ben drops his little bombshell, regarding his favorite hobby (an act of arson, hinted at in the title).
This comes roughly halfway through the picture. From there, the screenplay by the director and Oh Jung-mi turns more sinister in its possibilities and implications.
Relocated from Japan to South Korea, “Burning” comes from the oblique and superb 1983 short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami. Director Lee’s previous works include the dramas “Secret Sunshine” (2007) and “Poetry” (2010). For me “Burning” comes up a bit short in relation to those masterworks; it’s immaculate and beautifully acted, but there are times when you wouldn’t mind a rhythmic change-up or two.
That said: The film casts its own kind of spell. In a rich and gratifying way (I hope), you’ll start puzzling through what you’ve seen long before the credits are done rolling
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
“Burning” — three and a half stars (out of four)
No MPAA rating (nudity, sex, violence)
Running time: 2:28
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; www.musicboxtheater.com.