Fernando’s review published on Letterboxd:
Well, here we are.
"Barn-Burner" as social mosaic and existentialist thriller.
Does it mean it is a marathon from hell? Perhaps.
Does the film drags when Jung-su becomes so obssesed with Ben that half an hour of the movie is dedicated to HIM chasing ghosts and running on empty? Sure.
Let me tell this, too: It is disquieting, dislocating and distressing as hell. Once you understand Lee's pace has a purpose, you'll tolerate these shortcomings.
This is Lee Chang-dong's BARTON FINK. The mind of a writer can be a nightmarish hell indeed. Oh, and although there's no old Hollywood wrestlers and satire of the "Studio System" (in short, no comedic bits involved) there's a pyromaniac, too. And, duh, fire!
What this is supposed to reveal about Millenials' apathy and class divides in South Korea (as many have pointed out) I'm not sure. The hermetic Lee doesn't tell with words: he just shoots like an impressionistic painter. Many scenes will surely get ingrained in your brain with the expert staging here. A messy tiny apartment and the same tidy apartment can provoke a natural sense of dread. Something's always missing in the film. It can be literally, like Haemi, or metaphorical, like sanity.
And I decided to take it as its staging suggests: a slow-burn psychological thriller. Not painfully slow as some other have said. It just runs-around the block a little too much for its own good. But when it flies, like when the bomb is dropped halfway through, amid a dawn altered by dangerous revelations and too many joints, it really soars.
The fact the Lee seems to avoid shortcuts like a plague it's part of the mystery. He wants to alter our perceptions of who's zooming who here. But never WHY. You either buy it or not. The conversations are about the "meaning of life" or the "fear of death so much I wish I just dissapear". Well, it happens. But never a direct question or finger pointed to the suspect. Or calling the police when something seems really, really wrong.
Summarizing the plot can be so simple yet so difficult. What happens here is on the mind of the protagonist, The film it's his POV and ours, too. It's about young, unemployed, family-struggled and insecure Jung-su, his crush with carefree, volatile and mysterious Haemi and slightly older but too rich for his own age Ben (a "Gastby" of sorts). A love triangle ensues. Didn't I say he's also awkward at sex, more than a little paranoid and -only perhaps- reasonable fearful (and jealous) of Ben?
He likes William Faulkner and so, suddenly, does Ben. It's a Mr. Ripley-like situation. But the kid wants to write a novel only he's not sure what kind of novel he wants to write about. And what's happening to him might be the best novel he'll never write. That's the trick.
And we, the viewers, ask at some point why don't he settle down on his obssesions and returns home safely and just write the damn thing down. Or get a real job! Why playing with danger?
There's a Hitchcokian bait, that's why.
The mind of a writer can be a hell of a nightmare indeed. Lee Chang-dong understands and knows literature, especially psychological dramas and mystery novels. You'll appreciate this more if you do, too. As for the polemic final, it might seem like it's been rushed a bit. But it's only logical if you have spent more than two hours accumulating evidences, don't you think? Lee has built up such meticulous and repetitive mileu for something; he wants us exactly to know about Haemi and Ben as Jung-su does. Which is almost nothing. So we can play detective alongside the protagonist. And we can only hope, at last, what Jung-su should be writing about.
The "thriller" part is crystal clear. Then, you can bring on the socio-economics subtext all you want. The relationships here seem so coincidental and tied to isolated contexts you wonder whether this a local malaise, an age thing or a class thing. Or all three. That's for interpretation. But it could have worked without them in the microcosmic details Lee shows here. Then again, this is his expertise. And, more often than not, it supports murking the character's behaviour for the benefit of the mystery. Like in a Faulkner novel, you know? Only this is film, so he shows more than tell.
An inescrutable but major oeuvre.