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Lee Chang-dong’s enigmatic ‘Burning’ intrigues

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From left, Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo and Steven Yeun star in “Burning,” based on a short story by Haruki Murakami. (Courtesy Well Go Entertainment)

The mysterious, entrancing “Burning,” the latest from South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong (“Secret Sunshine,” “Poetry”), is like a weird dream you’ll want to try and remember after waking up.

Opening at the Landmark Embarcadero, it’s based on the great Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” which appeared in English in the New Yorker in 1992 and in the 1993 collection “The Elephant Vanishes.”

As with “Poetry,” released here in 2011, “Burning” lets bits of the story sneak up on viewers between moments of searching and contemplating.

Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) seems to work odd jobs, and is first seen making a delivery when he runs into an old schoolmate, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo, in a fine debut performance).

The casting is spot-on, with the interesting decision to make Jong-su somewhat slack-jawed and befuddled; in the story, the character is the narrator and not really described, but certain passages suggest this portrayal is a good fit.

Jong-su and Hae-mi go to dinner. She begins performing a mime routine, peeling and eating tangerines. She explains that the trick is not to pretend that the tangerines are there, but to forget that they are not there.

This logic can be applied to the rest of the movie.

Hae-mi announces that she’s saved up for a trip to Africa, and asks Jong-su to look after her cat, Boil (named because he was found in the boiler room), while she’s gone. He agrees, and they make love. While he never actually sees the cat, he becomes enraptured by a magical play of light that occurs each day in her apartment.

She returns from Africa, with the handsome, reticent, sportscar-driving Ben (Steven Yeun, “The Walking Dead”) in tow. The movie never defines this relationship, but, like Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” suggests each man has something different to offer Hae-mi.

Later, Jong-su has taken over his father’s small farm, and Ben and Hae-mi stop by for an impromptu visit. They drink and smoke pot, and Ben off-handedly tells Jong-su that he likes to burn greenhouses (not barns, as in the story) to the ground.

Jong-su learns that Ben burns a greenhouse once about every two months, that it’s almost time for another, and he’s already selected a greenhouse close by.

Lee goes to great lengths to preserve the enigma of Murakami’s story, although he offers a more pointed, yet fitting, ending.

He creates a world that feels realistic, yet allows for strange moments like the miming of tangerines and a confession about burning greenhouses to naturally emerge.

In “Poetry,” he favored an ill-fitting hand-held camera, but in “Burning,” he keeps things smoother, more fluid.

At nearly two and a half hours, the running time is not a problem. Certain subplots, such as Jong-su’s father being in jail, don’t add much, but don’t detract.

Like in the best short stories, events of “Burning” don’t seemingly relate at first. But open-minded viewers will likely see some connections, and discover how often times the smallest, oddest things in life mean the most.

REVIEW
Burning
Three and a half stars
Starring: Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo, Steven Yeun
Written by: Oh Jungmi, Lee Chang-dong
Directed by: Lee Chang-dong
Not rated
Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes

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