Visceral Slow Burn;
Subverts Your Expectations;
And Leaves You Thinking.
Infatuation, jealousy and resentment are are a potent mix of ingredients capable of producing a volatile cocktail. Once you become truly, deeply fixated on something, you can accept no other reality, no matter the outcome or consequences. Are you comfortable with that? Can you live with that?
I first saw the trailer for this about three weeks ago, and was immediately hooked. I may have even felt a tinge of that fixation myself. I couldn’t have been more excited when I finally sat in the theater and the lights faded. When they came back up two and a half hours later, I stood slowly, digesting what I had just seen with a faint taste of ash in the back of my throat and smell of smoke in my nose. This isn’t the kind of film that starts a brash, fiery blaze right in front of you, it prefers to keep most of its danger just out of your reach, its glow faint but unmistakably present on the horizon. You quietly, slowly choke on its fumes until it consumes you from the inside, singing the fibers in your lungs, its brand of tension smothering you.
Lee Chang-dong has directed and co-authored a great thriller with deliberate pacing and camera movements, great performances from his main players and a core rich with deep emotions and metaphors. It deceives you as it switches gears, shifting from love triangle to a tangled mystery, taunting you with a smug smirk much akin to Steven Yeun’s character, Ben. Just as Ben toys with Jong-su, so too does Chang-dong toy with the audience.
The script is wonderful and the parts very well-cast. Yoo Ah-in, as Jong-su conveys wonder and bewilderment in equal measure, turning his youthful optimism into ruthless suspicion over the courts of the film. He holds Hae-mi (played by Jun Jong-seo), an old neighborhood friend all grown up, in much higher regard than she holds him upon their adult reunification. It starts as a casual afternoon delight, but Jong-su wastes no time in viewing it as much more. He becomes infatuated. So much so that when she asks him to watch her cat while she goes on a trip to Africa, he barely even blinks. When she returns home with Ben, a young, wealthy playboy who seems (if such an oxymoron exists) cautiously careless, his eyes fixate. The jealousy sets in as he commands Hae-mi’s attention, resentment the embers that will feed his internal fire. He sees the clear class distinction that separates him from Ben, and hopes Hae-mi will be blinded to it. But maybe they don’t exist in entirely different worlds , as Ben hints at a reckless, dark side by confessing a dangerous and illegal hobby: he burns down greenhouses. Should Jong-su take this at face value? Is it a metaphor? Will we find out?
Hae-mi is somewhat aloof, a free spirit adrift in the sea of her surroundings and their endless possibilities. She speaks of Little Hunger (the physical kind) versus Great Hunger (the spiritual kind), and it is easy to figure out which camp she inhabits. She yearns for more out of life, which is probably why she will slum it by sleeping with the son of a poor farmer from her childhood village one day and partner up with someone of Ben’s mysteriously wealthy stature the next. She enjoys pot and dancing topless in the presence of both men, suggesting that she is right in front of them while still being out of their collective reach. She is the mystery they are both drawn to, but quite possibly for vastly different reasons.
I loved the contrast between cityscape and countryside, the former showcasing narrow, constricted views and the latter featuring wide, lush landscapes. It helps to draw further attention to the character differential, and Hae-mi’s presence in each setting illustrates her desire to inhabit both worlds, perhaps searching for somewhere permanent to place roots. The score by Mowg is unique, unsettling and bold, constantly finding ways to add to the already-thick layers of atmosphere. This is a modern noir, a mysterious thriller that simmers under the surface with a foreboding sense of dread that you can practically reach out and touch until its powerful, unforgettable climax. Holding it back from a higher grade, for me, is the fact that its pacing could have used some more upward beats to break the monotony and make the runtime feel shorter, and the need for more time invested in Jong-su’s father, whose story arc is only briefly touched upon, and it seemed like it could have done a lot to fill in his son’s character it fully explored. But these are minor quips in an otherwise gripping, beautifully-shot film.