2019 was a special year for me. I came back to cinema in an abiding way after a break of over three years. It was also this year that I quit my day job to write and translate full time, even if it has mostly been for this site. This second innings of my cinephilia has been more guarded, and I find it hard to be excited about watching this or that film, even if it’s by a favourite filmmaker. Part of the reason for this change, I think, is that I don’t repose as much faith in the taste-makers I was earlier guided by (major festivals, branded auteurs, critical consensus). This has weakened, if not completely collapsed, the structure in my mind of what constitutes important cinema of a particular year. Adding to this is the fact that the way I react to films has changed. In my writing, I see myself responding to certain aspects of a work rather than forming strong opinion on its overall merit. As a result, I’m as stimulated by lesser works with strong moments or ideas as I am by expectedly major projects. Whether this breaking down of hierarchies is a sign of openness to new things or a symptom of waning faith, I don’t know.

            The state of affairs in the world outside cinema hasn’t been easy either. The staggering return of the politically repressed around the world has found an expression in some of this year’s films too (Zombi Child, The Dead Don’t Die, Atlantics, Ghost Town Anthology, Immortal). Personally speaking, the increasingly dire situation in India hasn’t been without its influence on the way I relate to cinema. The brazenness of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has now paled in comparison to the mind-numbing institutional violence towards the ongoing protests against the act. Looking at videos of police brutality on my social media feed, I wondered, as anyone else involved in matters of lesser urgency must have, if writing about cinema at this point even had a personal significance, leave alone a broader, social one. The directness of the videos, the clarity of their meaning and the immediacy of their effect made me doubt whether cinematic literacy—contextualization, analysis, inference, interpretation—was a value worth striving for. Weakening of convictions is perhaps part of growing old, but it makes writing all the more difficult. Every utterance becomes provisional, crippled by dialectical thought. I don’t have a hope-instilling closing statement to give like Godard does in The Image Book, so here’s a top ten list instead. Happy new year.

 

0. 63 Up (Michael Apted, UK)

 

1. The Truth (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan/France)

 

While multiple films this year about old age have presented it as a time of reckoning, Kore-eda’s European project The Truth offers an honest, rigorous and profoundly generous picture of life’s twilight. In a career-summarizing role, Catherine Deneuve plays a creature of surfaces, a vain actress who struts in leopard skin and surrounds herself with her own posters. Her Fabienne is a pure shell without a core who can never speak in the first person. She has written an autobiography, but it’s a sanitized account, a reflection of how her life would rather have been. “Truth is boring”, she declares. Responding to her daughter Lumir’s (Juliette Binoche) complaint that she ignored her children for work, she bluntly states that she prefers to be a good actress than a good person. Behaviour precedes intent in the mise en abyme of Kore-eda’s intricate monument to aging, as performance becomes a means of expiation and a way of relating to the world. A work overflowing with sensual pleasures as well as radical propositions, The Truth rejects the dichotomy between actor and role, both in the cinematic and the existential sense. In the end, Fabienne and her close ones come together as something resembling a family. That, assures Kore-eda’s film, is good enough.

 

2. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

 

The across-the-board success of Parasite invites two possible inferences: either that the cynical logic of capital can steer a searing critique of itself to profitable ends or that this twisted tale of upward ascension appeals to widely-held anxiety and resentment. Whatever it is, Bong Joon-ho’s extraordinary, genre-bending work weds a compelling social parable to a vital, pulsating form that doesn’t speak to current times as much as activate something primal, mythical in the viewer. With a parodic bluntness reminiscent of the best of seventies cinema, Bong pits survivalist working-class resourcefulness with self-annihilating bourgeois prejudice and gullibility, the implied sexual anarchy never exactly coming to fruition. He orchestrates the narrative with the nimbleness and legerdemain of a seasoned magician, the viewer’s sympathy for any of the characters remaining contingent and constantly forced to realign itself from scene to scene. Parasite is foremost a masterclass in describing space, in the manner in which Bong synthesizes the bunker-like shanty of the working-class family with the high-modernist household of their upper-class employers, tracing direct metaphors for the film’s themes within its topology. It’s a work that progresses with the inevitability of a boulder running down a hill. And how spectacularly it comes crashing.

 

3. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

 

Vitalina Varela is an emblem of mourning. In recreating a harrowing moment in her life for the film, the middle-aged Vitalina, who comes to Lisbon following her husband’s death, instils her loss with a meaning. It’s a film not of political justice but individual injustice, the promise to Vitalina the that men in their resignation and madness have forgotten. It’s also a bleak, relentless work of subtractions. What is shown is arrived at by chipping away what can’t/won’t be shown, this formal denuding reflective of the increasing dispossession of the Cova da Moura shantytown we see in the film. Costa’s Matisse-like delineation of figure only suggests humans, enacting the ethical problems of representation in its plastic scheme. The film is on a 4:3 aspect ratio, but the viewer hardly perceives that, the localized light reducing the visual field to small pockets of brightness. Vitalina is a film of and about objects, whose vanishing echoes the community’s dissolution and whose presence embodies Vitalina’s assertive spirit. Her voice has its own materiality, her speech becomes her means to survival. Costa’s film is a vision of utter despair, a cold monument with an uplifting, absolutely essential final shot. A dirge, in effect.

 

4. Bird Island (Sergio da Costa & Maya Kosa, Switzerland)

 

The bird island of the title is a utopian place, a refuge for those wounded or cast aside by modernity. For sixty minutes, we are invited to look at five people working silently alongside each other in a bird shelter, tending to birds dazed by the airport next door. They don’t ask where these birds come from, nor do they expect them to leave soon. They simply treat the feathered creatures, re-habituate them into the wild and set them free. The reclusive Antonin, the new employee, is one such bird too, and his social healing at the shelter is at the heart of the film. Bird Island is full of violence, natural and man-made, all of which it treats with stoic acceptance, but it’s a work primarily about the curative power of community, the capacity for individuals to coexist in mutual recognition of each other’s frailties. In that, it’s the Catholic film par excellence, an allegory of the origin of religion. It’s also an exceptionally relaxing film to look at. Observing the participants absorbed like Carthusian monks in their individual tasks, even while working in a group, places the viewer on the same meditative state.

 

5. Heimat is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise, Germany)

 

Without question, Heimat is a Space in Time is the best 3½-hour film of the year. Heise’s sprawling experimental documentary uses largely personal documents—letters sent between family members, handed-down private documents—to evoke a broad history of 20th century Germany. As a narrator reads out the exchanges—Heise’s grandfather trying to reason with the Nazi state against his forced retirement, heart-rending accounts from his Jewish great grandparents describing their impending deportation, letters between his parents who were obliged to be in two different places in DDR—we see quotidian images from current day Germany and Austria, urban and rural. For Heise’s family, always made to justify their own place in the country and to never truly belong, the Germanic idea of Heimat seems positively a fantasy. While he reads out his great grandparents’ descriptions of their increasingly impossible conditions of living, Heise presents a scrolling list of Viennese deportees prepared. We try to look for the inevitable arrival of their names in the alphabetical list, our gaze forever deferred. When they do arrive, it feels arbitrary. In other words, what we hear could well be the story of any of the thousand preceding names. Perhaps all of them.

 

6. Slits (Carlos Segundo, Brazil)

 

A worthy heir to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Slits draws its inspiration from quantum physics to explore patently human concerns of loss, grief and memory. The uncertainly principle it offers is a choice between being in this world, awake to the problems of living, and finding meaning in the elsewhere. Physicist Catarina (Roberta Rangel) makes ‘sound-photos’ to study quantum the properties of light. She makes extreme zooms into a digital image to perceive the noise issuing from particular coordinates. These ‘dives’ enable her to listen to conversations from another space-time. Grieving from the loss of her child, Catarina unconsciously attempts to find closure through her research. But trying to inspect the surface of things from too close, she loses sight of her immediate reality; trying to find solace in the objectivity of science, she ends up rediscovering the great lesson of 20th century science (and cinema): that the observer influences the observation. Shot in high-definition digital video, Slits is to this new format what Blow-up was to photography. It locates in the trade-offs of the medium—between details and stability, between richness of palette and noise—visual correlatives to its key idea of quantum uncertainty. A brilliant, sophisticated work of politico-philosophical science fiction.

 

7. Little Joe (Jessica Hausner, UK/Austria)

 

Of all the recent classical Hollywood riffs in mind, none reinvigorates the B-movie tradition as intelligently or potently as Little Joe. Hausner’s modernist creature feature is a monster movie unlike any other: the dangers of the genetically-modified “happiness” plant that biologist Emily (Alice Woodard) develops is exposed early on, and there’s no triumphal reassertion of mankind to counter its menace. What we get instead is a protracted, total submission of individuality to a hegemony of happiness. Little Joe is many things at once: a multi-pronged attack on the wellness industry straight out of Lanthimosverse, the difficulty of being less than happy in an environment that demands you to be constantly upbeat, the fallout of women artists trying to expunge their maternal complexes in their work and of mothers having to lead double lives. Hausner’s camera appears to have a mind of its own, settling on the space between people, which is what the film is about: the culturally mediated relations between individuals. It’s notable that the titular plant reproduces not biologically but culturally. With its terrific score and work on colour, Hausner turns the cheesecake aesthetic of the film against itself. The result is a film of unusual intellectual density and formal frisson.

 

8. Status and Terrain (Ute Adamczewski, Germany)

 

In Status and Terrain, the German obsession with documentation and due process is called to testify to the dialectical process of historical remembrance. Adamczewski’s gently moving camera surveys the length and breath of public spaces in the Saxony region, once a Nazi stronghold, now seemingly anaesthetized under liberal democracy. Official communication, bureaucratic reports and private testimonies read on the voiceover incriminate the buildings and monuments we see on screen, revealing their role in power struggles through the ages. Just as the documents vie for a narrative on the soundtrack, ideologies once thought dead and buried surface to stake their claims on the urban landscape in the present. Adamczewski moves through 80 years of German history non-chronologically, the collage of information pointing to the living, breathing nature of political belief systems. Nazi detention of political opponents in concentration camps, Soviet retribution and blindness to victims of persecution, rise of neo-fascist groups post reunification and the historically indifferent, bulldozing force of current-day neoliberalism play out on the surface of seemingly sedate cities and towns. Status and Terrain is a sober, bracing examination of the manner in which prejudice becomes writ, which in turn becomes history, but also of the way in which this history is contested.

 

9. Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina, USA)

 

The premise is a throwback to the clichés of the eighties: a group of teenagers at a suburban school prepare for their prom night. But in Taormina’s sure-handed treatment, this banal event assumes a spiritual dimension. In the film’s cubist first half, different groups of boys and girls make their way to the restaurant-turned-dance hall, where they will take part in rites of initiation into adulthood and experience something like a religious communion. And then, right after this VHS-ready high, a void descends over the film, turning its raptures into a mourning, not for those who have left this small-town existence but for those left behind: disaffected youth drift about the town or going through robotic social rituals, devoid of magic or warmth. It’s a work evidently deriving from personal experience, but one that’s refracted through a formalist lens. The strength of Ham on Rye is not the depth of its ideas, but the vigour of its prose. Taormina’s manifestly personal style emphasizes the surface of things, the idiosyncratic shot division focuses on gestures and minor physical details to construct scenes, and the eclectic sense of music imposes a global consciousness on a narrative that is otherwise extremely local.

 

10. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (Frank Beauvais, France)

 

“Cinephiles are sick people”, said Truffaut. Frank Beauvais agrees. Following his father’s passing and a breakup, Beauvais shut himself up in his house in a trou perdu in Eastern France, and watched over 400 films in a period of seven months. Out of this glut, this sickness that Beauvais calls ‘cinéfolie’, came Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream, a film about looking, made wholly of clips from these 400 movies. Through a rapid, self-aware voiceover, the filmmaker reflects on his self-imposed isolation, his panic attacks, the poverty that prevents him from changing his lifestyle, his complicated feelings towards with political action, the conservatism of those around him and his relationship with his parents. Beauvais’s film is a record of his malady as well as its cure. In its very existence, it demonstrates what anyone sufficiently sickened by cultural gluttony must’ve felt: that the only way to give meaning to the void of indiscriminate consumption is to produce something out of it. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is not just a cinephile’s film, filled end to end with references, but the preeminent film about cinephilia, the solipsistic hall of mirrors that Beauvais breaks down and rebuilds inside out.

 

Special Mention: Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar, India)

 

 

Parasite

[Spoilers below]

In the inaugural shot of Bong Joon-ho’s masterful new film, Parasite, the camera glides down from the view of a window, taking us into a netherworld where the Kim family lives. The setting is a semi-basement, a two-room residence whose only access to natural light is through this window. The family of four is leeching its internet from the Wi-Fi connection upstairs. The Kims are unemployed and make a living in the underground economy folding boxes for a pizza service. A public exterminator passes by and floods the house with smoke as the family continues folding its boxes. By the time the film ends in a green and sunny garden, however, we aren’t sure who the parasites are. Like Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, the previous Palme d’Or winner, Parasite describes a society whose marginalized figures find it necessary to bend the rules of the game just to stay afloat. Even more, it presents a contemporary dystopia in which the working-class has to fight against itself for social ascendancy.

When one of his successful friends leaves the country, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the son of the Kim family, gets the chance to tutor Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the daughter of an affluent couple, Mr. and Mrs. Park (Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong). Ki-woo learns that Mrs. Park, who has now christened him Kevin, has artistic aspirations for her son. So, he introduces his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) to her as Jessica, a famous art teacher. Jessica, in turn, schemes to get the family’s driver sacked and her father, Mr. Kim (Song Kang-ho), hired. Mr. Kim, promptly, has the house’s long-time maid replaced by his wife (Jang Hye-jin). The film proceeds like a mathematical theorem till this point, depicting the linear, rigorous takeover of the Park household by the Kims. As the Parks drive away on vacation, the Kims sit boozing in the sleek living room of the house. There’s an uncertainty as to what course the plot will chart, now that the Kims have what they wanted. The sexual charge between Kevin and Da-hye and between Mr. Kim and Mrs. Park hints at a dissolution of the Park family à la Pasolini. The film, however, takes a whole new direction right at the midpoint. What was so far a comedy with elements of the crime movie turns into a darkly-comic crime movie. The fired housekeeper comes back and reveals a bunker in the house where her husband has been residing for the past four years with her help. As the housekeeper and the Kims one-up each other, the Parks announce their return over phone. What follows is a remarkable passage involving conflict, stealth and subterfuge in which the Kims lock the housekeeper in the basement and get out of the house without the Parks noticing.

Like Shoplifters, Parasite depicts an impoverished family tying to meet its needs by working its way through morally questionable territory. They are, no doubt, qualified to do the jobs they take up, but the means they employ to get their break is shady. They forge documents, feed on Mrs. Park’s parental anxiety, prey on other members of their class and usurp their jobs. For the Kims, this well-orchestrated employment project is as theatrical as it is logistical. They fake elite provenance, perform in front of the Park family, manipulating their fears and prejudices to their advantage. That said, the Kims are a happy, loving bunch, sticking by each other at all times. They are always seen eating together and their big dinner in the posh living room attests to their genuine cordiality. Their rise is based on family solidarity, as is their incredible escape from the house. The family, in Bong’s film, is in fact the only bulwark against precarity: without the “chain of trust” that the Kim family form together, they’d fall apart.

The Park family, on the contrary is hardly seen together in the same shot. They never have their meals together, holed up as they are in different corners of their massive residence. Bong and co-writer Han Jin-won mount a broad critique of middle-class Korean family, lampooning their American obsession and their preference for western names, objects and social codes. They contrast the hierarchized relations within the Park family with the egalitarian dynamics of the Kims. Mr. Park has unflattering opinion about his wife, though he’d call what he feels towards her love. He doesn’t like the boundary between the driver’s seat and the back of the car violated and prefers that his workers stay within their line. Mrs. Park fear of her husband’s reproach is opposed to Mrs. Kim calling her husband a cockroach in jest. The whole problem comes about – and the plot moves forward – because Mr. and Mrs. Park prefer keeping information from one another. They refuse to openly talk with the employees they fire, relying on their own preconceived notions of how the servant class behaves to make their decisions. Their discreet existence has made them so gullible that all it takes to take them for a ride is a fancy visiting card.

“Lots of people live underground”, says the housekeeper’s bunker-dwelling husband to a surprised Mr. Kim. Parasite’s class-coded topography of high and low isn’t merely literal-minded symbolism, it corresponds to the spatial experience of different social classes. Perhaps for the first time since Kurosawa’s High and Low, we have a scenario whose metaphors are derived from the actual living conditions of the characters. The Kim family has to literally look up at the world. Their cellar of a house hardly gets any sun. Its window is a urinating spot for drunken drifters. When it rains, the whole house is flooded, “washing out” the residents. The basic necessities of life – clean air, water and sunshine – have been rendered luxuries in their world as in ours. The high-walled house of the Park family, on the other hand, is constructed at an elevation and sealed away from other humans. The Parks have a lush garden receiving abundant sunshine, where their Indian-crazy son pitches his tepee during the rain that floods the Kim home. They stock their daily supplies in the basement, but there’s a bunker even beyond that they’re unaware of. These bunkers, we are told, were traditional components of affluent households, constructed for the owners to take shelter during war or from debtors. Bong’s film is marked by several upward and downward movements that are physical as much as economic.

Fertile though the scenario is, the success of Parasite entirely rests on Bong’s orchestration of the material. The film proceeds at breakneck pace: Kevin’s comment about introducing Jessica is followed by a shot of the two entering the house, without any filler event intervening. Ditto with their father and mother. Their elaborate scheme to get the entire family employed at the house is presented as a montage cut to a string-heavy classical score. Bong constantly finds ways to break the monotony of over-the-shoulder shots in conversations with different configurations of actor positions. By nature of the script, the viewer cannot identify with any character in the film and Bong plays on this ambiguity all through. Our expectation in every scene changes rapidly depending on the characters involved: in the confrontation between the Kims and the old housekeeper, the sympathy lies with the latter, but as soon as the Parks are back home, the axis of identification changes. The set-piece of the family’s escape from the house is a mini-marvel of filmmaking that synthesizes all the narrative information the viewer is provided so far and provides new ones without diluting the tension. The intuitive manner in which it stitches together various spaces of the house is a tour de force of sequence composition.

Bong’s penchant for and adeptness in blending genres is well-known, and it’s an explosive generic cocktail he concocts in this film. The film weaves in and out of comedy, drama, horror, crime and even sci-fi, the multivalence palpable even on the soundtrack which overlays different genres of music. The tensest moments of the film are also its funniest. The sequence that follows the intense escape scene, in which the Kims discover their house flooded by the rain and take refuge in a state camp, provokes a complex of strong emotions one rarely experiences in cinema: relief (at their escape), worry (about the condition of the housekeeper), fear (of the Parks’ discovery of the bunker), pity (for the Kims’ flooded house), anger (at the Parks’ plans for a party). Bong’s editing is as intellectual as it is visceral. He intercuts between the Kim household drowning in rain and the bunker where the housekeeper and her husband are trapped, creating an extra-narrative working-class solidarity that’s only present subconsciously within the film. A shot of a character smashing another’s head with a rock is cut to an opera performance, the unnerving combination of low and high human impulses emblematic of the whole film.

Following Lee Chang-dong’s sensitive Burning last year, Bong gives us a work that puts Korea’s exacerbating unemployment problem under the scanner. Like Lee’s film, it throws light on Seoul’s segregated districts that keep social classes in increasing isolation from each other and which modulate the very manner these classes see themselves and each other. That it provides this insight in a form that’s as dynamic and enrapturing as it is intelligent and complex is Bong’s special success.

Okja

[Possible spoilers ahead]

Bong Joon-ho’s Okja begins with Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the new CEO of Mirando Corporation, unveiling “super-pig”, a new porcine variant her GMO company has come up with to solve the world’s hunger problems. In order to soften its public image and garner popular support for the new pork variety, the company announces a “best super-pig” competition, in which super-piglets are given to farmers around the world for a duration of ten years. One of these creatures, now named Okja, grows up with Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), an orphaned farmgirl living in the mountains of South Korea. When the competition day arrives, Okja is taken by Mirando to Seoul and then to New York against Mija’s wishes. Mija, with uninvited help a group of American activists from the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), follows Okja to New York to get her back home.

Bong lampoons Mirando Corp as being headed by a family of deranged egotists convinced of the nobility of their mission. There’s no pretence to realism here. Swinton, that epitome of ironic existence, draws from Cruella de Vil and Jake Gyllenhaal as Johnny, Miranda’s neurotic PR, clearly works off cartoon/anime types as well. Though he’s ultimately with them, Bong parodies the ALF activists too, with their facetious politeness and misplaced idealism. Both are, of course, gross exaggerations and Bong’s equating of both reeks of a cool cynicism towards his subject matter. On the other hand, the filmmaker invests all his heart into the world of Mija and Okja. The film spends considerable time depicting the Edenic life in the mountains, where men and CG animals live in symbiosis with nature. The elephantine Okja, a cross between a pig and a hippopotamus, eats a small dose of fruits, helps Mija and her grandfather in fishing and sustains the ecosystem with her droppings. Bong doesn’t question this violation of nature’s rules, effectively acknowledging Mirando’s claim of having created a superior animal.

As the film shifts to the technologized jungle of Seoul – a disorienting change from the mountains – the film takes on more complex tones. A long, compelling action sequence finds both Mija and the ALF members coming together to hijack Okja, plant a spy-cam on her and let her be taken to the Mirando test facility in New Jersey. There’s a conversation between ALF and Mija translated by a Korean member of the group that speaks to Bong’s status as a Korean director making English-language films. The punch-line for this scene comes later and with the splash of violence that was always on the cards. Meanwhile, at the Mirando lab, Johnny has successfully bred Okja with a male super-pig and whipped up a meal with samples from Okja’s body. Scenes such as these involving ALF and Mirando corrupt the innocent fable of Mija and Okja and change this children’s film into a genetically-altered organism in itself.

Yet, Okja is a Disney movie at the DNA level. In the Korean portion of the film, Okja is demonstrated to be an intelligent, non-human person capable of empathy and even sacrifice: she saves Okja from a fatal fall at the risk of her own life – another disconcerting characteristic for a manufactured animal the film doesn’t bother to question. The film’s final scene takes place in Mirando’s large-scale abattoir where super-pigs are stocked and killed. Bong shows us the slaughter and we are all the more repulsed because the animals are invested with human emotions. This anthropomorphism reveals an instrumental morality typical of Hollywood animation, which only humanizes animals that aren’t eaten. The super-pigs need to be saved not because all animals need to be saved, but because they are extremely useful, higher beings. As Mija and Okja walk out of the facility, lucky to be alive, a super-pig couple nudges out their piglet out the barbed-wire fence to be smuggled out by Okja. Followed by a collective howl of thousands of super-pigs doomed to die, it’s a very disturbing scene with unsavoury echoes of the Holocaust. It moves us for the wrong reasons. Tough luck if you aren’t a species with human-like expression.

Burning

Lee Chang-dong’s first directorial project since Poetry in 2010, Burning portrays the civil life of an ex-serviceman Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) who falls in love with a shop girl Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). After a trip to Kenya, Hae-mi grows close to a dodgy, rich young man called Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong-su, meanwhile, discovers that his estranged father, who likes collecting knives, is tangled up in a case involving assault of a government official. In a marijuana-fuelled meeting at sundown at Jong-su’s house in the countryside, Ben reveals that he likes burning down greenhouses – a metaphor that Jong-su, wannabe novelist, picks up a little too late. Hae-mi vanishes and Jong-su spends his time stalking Ben to find out the truth. The closer he seems to get to the bottom of his girlfriend’s disappearance, the more it seems that he’s imagining things. Lee’s excellent film is a thriller that’s also an astute socioeconomic portrait. And the philosophical questions the thriller aspect of the film raises, Lee seems to be telling us, are also emanations of class conflict.

The protagonist Jong-su’s predicament is whether he has inherited any of the insanity and violence that characterizes his father. As a child, he was forced by his father to burn his mother’s clothes when she left home for someone else. The confusion as to whether he’s seeing things as they are or he’s losing it manifests in Jong-su’s slow response to happenings around him. He takes time to make sense and even longer to act (and Yoo realizes this slowness in his sluggish physicality). He’s trying to write a novel, but doesn’t know on what. Outside of odd delivery stints, he is unemployed, like many of his young compatriots. He refuses to take up a menial job, preferring to move back to his father’s now-deserted home outside Seoul. His relation to Ben (“Gatsby”) is also determined by class resentment and Lee’s film is clear-eyed about the classist spaces of Seoul. Ben lives in a swanky apartment in Gangnam, where Jong-su’s pick-up truck sticks out like a sore thumb. The places that Ben frequents (and which he sometimes invites Jong-su to) – the brewery, discotheque, gymnasium, art museum, the church even – are in stark contrast to Jong-su’s downtown hangouts and Hae-mi’s matchbox-sized studio in a noisier part of town. Lee includes several shots of the characters navigating Seoul’s various districts and of Jong-su driving around in his pick-up truck, following Ben’s Porsche, like Scottie from Vertigo. Just like Hitchcock’s film, Burning is full of repetitions, reflections, pairings whose patterns appear to impart sense to Jong-su’s quest and redouble his obsession.

Burning unfolds as a metaphysical thriller like Blow-Up, and Shutter Island. Its protagonist is never sure whether his understanding of the world is reflective of reality or simply a product of his broken self. But, as with most narrative films that intend to depict the enigma of perception, the ambiguity Burning constructs runs the risk of being undone by the nature of the medium itself. Lee’s film is inspired from two short stories both titled “Barn Burning”, one by William Faulkner and the other by Haruki Murakami – influences acknowledged several times in the screenplay. While, in literature, it’s possible to present reality as being entirely refracted through the protagonist’s subjectivity, the fact of having to film in third person adds an objective dimension to Burning’s narrative. Ben’s demeanour and behaviour is there on screen for the viewer to see for herself. Lee gives Ben all the trappings of a gay serial killer, and even if his protagonist is unable to make up his mind on Ben’s true nature, the viewer is pushed to. Sealing the issue is a final scene at Ben’s house where he is with another girl: Jong-su isn’t present here and the scene exists in order to bait the viewer and challenge her view of Ben. It would have better served Lee’s accomplished film to obscure Ben’s presence.