Lee Chang-dong’s incandescent return in Competition

film still of Burning © RR

His last film, Poetry, earned him Best Screenplay Award in 2010. Eight years later, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong is back in Cannes with Burning,  his sixth feature film. The script was inspired by a short story by Haruki Murakami, an unexpected discovery for an incandescent thriller in Competition.

Jongsu, a young delivery man, has a chance encounter with Haemi, a childhood friend, who asks him if he'd mind looking after her cat while she is away in Africa. She comes home with a friend named Ben, whom she met on her trip. One day Ben confides in Jongsu about his disturbing incandescent pastime…

Scorching anger simmers under the flames. In Burning, Lee Chang-dong implicitly expresses all the anger of his youth:

“Young adults in Korea suffer terribly, in particular because of unemployment. They have lost all hope of seeing their situation improve. Not knowing who should be the target of their anger, they feel completely powerless.”

It took eight years for Lee Chang-dong and his co-scriptwriter, Oh Jung-mi, to finish this film. Their process is meticulous and demanding. The project was triggered by a chance encounter with a text, "Barn Burning" by Murakami, which is, by their own account, "a story in which nothing happens". Nothing, that is, except mystery and a broad cinematographic scope.

So the challenge was to make Burning into a broader and more complex story, but without solving all the mysteries. In the story, Lee Chang-dong sees an allegory of contemporary society, a world in which something is amiss although it is impossible to put your finger on it. He talks about "a dance in search of the meaning of life" that will speak to Koreans and to the rest of the world as well.