Early on in "Burning," Lee Chang-dong's masterpiece of psychological unease, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman teaching herself the art of pantomime, peels and eats an invisible tangerine. The trick, she tells her companion, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), is not to pretend that you're holding a tangerine, but "to forget that there isn't a tangerine."
The moment comes straight from Haruki Murakami's 1983 short story "Barn Burning," which Lee and his co-writer, Oh Jung-mi, have skillfully expanded and transplanted from Japan to their native South Korea. But the ideas that the scene introduces, about the challenges of perception and the limitations of memory, are uniquely fascinating to consider within the confines of a cinema screen.
With unusual rigor for an artist working in a visual medium, Lee explores the boundaries of what can and cannot be seen. In his emotionally shattering dramas "Secret Sunshine" (2007) and "Poetry" (2010), the director turned everyday images, such as a sunbeam striking a wall, into luminous existential riddles, challenging his characters to study them and glimpse the possibility of transcendence dwelling within.
"Burning," Lee's sixth feature and this year's South Korean entry for the foreign-language film Oscar, continues this thematic investigation with extraordinary lucidity and intelligence, but also an abiding respect for its own mysteries. This is the most absorbing movie I've seen this year, as well as the most layered and enigmatic.
At any given moment you can be nearly certain of what story is being told – a romantic triangle, a crime thriller, a dark comedy of class rage, a parable for a divided nation – only for the shape of the picture to suddenly bend, morph and slip once more through your fingers.
Remarkably, Lee achieves this ambiguity not by coyly withholding information, but by etching his characters and their environments with a startling richness of detail. He begins with an oblique shot of a parked truck before letting the driver, Jong-su, slip into view, keeping his head down as he smokes a cigarette on a sidewalk in Seoul.
Jong-su, a deliveryman, is not a guy who stands out, which makes it all the more surprising when Hae-mi pulls him aside, her eyes sparkling with delight and mischief. They once knew each other, she reminds him, when they were growing up in Paju, a small town near the border with North Korea. Jong-su, who still lives and works on his father's farm in Paju but dreams of becoming a writer, is charmed and slightly thrown by Hae-mi's assertiveness. Soon they're making love in her cramped Seoul apartment, an encounter that clearly affects him much more than it does her. Hae-mi is a dreamer and an emotional whirlwind, whose flirty, spirited manner can suddenly veer into reproachfulness, even contempt. Early on she claims that Jong-su once called her ugly when they were younger, and you might wonder if she's trying to settle a score.
That suspicion lingers when Hae-mi asks Jong-su to look after her cat while she's on a trip, from which she returns with a companion in tow named Ben (Steven Yeun). Slick, handsome and prone to soft, cryptic pronouncements, Ben drives a Porsche and lives a life of leisure in Seoul's tony Gangnam district. Is he Hae-mi's new boyfriend? It's not entirely clear, but either way, she seems insistent on keeping Jong-su around, maybe out of cruelty or, worse, pity.
As the three of them hang out in the following days, having tea at a Gangnam cafe or smoking a joint in Jong-su's yard, Ben's air of quiet superiority becomes increasingly oppressive. There is his undisguised wealth, of course, but also his polite condescension, the grating little half-smiles that hide a chilling absence of feeling. ("I've never shed a tear in my life," Ben marvels with a chuckle after Hae-mi weepily recalls an emotionally fraught memory from their trip.)
Jong-su likens Ben to Jay Gatsby, an association countered by his own identification with his favorite author, William Faulkner. (By pure coincidence, Faulkner wrote a 1939 story also titled "Barn Burning," a fact that Lee exploits ingeniously here.) Where "Burning" falls on the literary spectrum between Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald is a particularly tantalizing question, and Lee never tips his hand as he shuttles between the elegant, gleaming interiors of Ben's apartment and the disarray of Jong-su's home. (Even the music feels uncertain: Mowg's swampy score, which at times seems to well up from the sounds of rural activity, at one point gives way to a soulful blast of Miles Davis.)
About halfway through the movie, Ben makes an odd personal disclosure that illuminates the meaning of the title, at which point "Burning" gradually shifts into a darker, more menacing register. Someone vanishes and someone returns. The aforementioned cat plays a surprising role, in an exquisitely Murakamian touch. Past and present family tragedies loom into the foreground, as unignorable as the North Korean propaganda blasting from the speakers near Paju.
Jong-su's solitude, a familiar state for him, feels newly charged with tension, violence and a strange, disquieting excitement. He's a writer, after all, and his feelings of dread, impotence and rage don't entirely cancel out his realization that he might have a killer story on his hands.
Lee certainly does. Critics have often hailed his films as "novelistic," partly because of their leisurely pacing and narrative density, and also because he was a renowned novelist for years before he turned to filmmaking. But that backhanded compliment overlooks how assuredly he wields the medium, how vividly and forcefully cinematic his stories have become. His visual gifts have matured beautifully, though never at the expense of meaning: While the widescreen images in "Burning" are composed with crystalline precision (by the cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo), an elusive tangle of feelings and emotions still anchors every frame.
It would be hard to overstate the perfection of the three leads or the skill with which the movie keeps rearranging them, like gemstones that are forever catching the viewer's gaze and bending it in different directions. Yeun gives off an especially brilliant shimmer: Well known to American audiences from "The Walking Dead" and speaking entirely in Korean here, he delivers a flawlessly restrained, sometimes appallingly funny performance, infused with the slyest hint of outsider celebrity. Ben is lofty, charming, maddening and unreachable, and yet crucial to his mystique is the suggestion of a deeper kinship between himself and Jong-su, two men who in very different ways veer perilously close to sociopathy.
Yoo, well known in South Korea, meets the challenge of expressing multitudes through a shy, fundamentally inexpressive character. Jong-su isn't wholly withdrawn; in his private moments with Hae-mi, he's capable of understated wit and a disarming emotional earnestness, but the spark goes out whenever Ben and his laughing, smirking friends enter the picture. In one piercing scene, he watches in helpless silence as Hae-mi, egged on by those friends, performs an impromptu dance in front of them, giving voice to an anguished vulnerability that only Jong-su can see.
But it's not the only scene in which Hae-mi dances; nor is it the only one in which Jeon, making a remarkable screen debut, brings this young woman to beautiful, soulful and defiant life. Hae-mi is in some ways the trickiest character in "Burning," which is saying something, but she may also be the most guileless – a lonely woman with a deep capacity for feeling, caught between two men who can hardly be said to deserve her. When she isn't on screen, her absence becomes its own troubling presence. The less we see, the more we fear we know.