Local cinemas this week

We don’t see nearly enough Asian movies in our arthouse cinemas. Why?

Movie of the week: Burning

Like many disaffected millennials the world over, Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) is underemployed and listless. He works as a delivery driver in Seoul and  wants to be a writer, but says he “doesn’t know what to write.” One day he runs into Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), an old school friend from his home town, but doesn’t recognise her. “Plastic surgery,” she says. Assertive and very cute, she takes him back to her tiny (and I mean tiny!) single room flat, and leading all the way – into her bed. Then announces that she’s off to Africa for a month, so would he mind feeding her cat? Of course – one good deed deserves another and anyway, he’s smitten… He never sees the cat, though something leaves deposits in the litter bin. In her room he moons about the absent Hae-mi and masturbates, about the only time he manages to take matters into his own hand – at least until the film’s devastating third act… She summons him for an airport pickup, which he does in a battered ute belonging to his dad – who is in jail for assaulting a government official. But Hae-mi arrives with Ben (Steven Yeun), who she just met in Kenya in tow, who has his own Porsche. When Ben answers Jong-su’s question about what he does for a living, he smiles enigmatically and says, “ To put it simply, I ‘play’…”

Now if you think you know where this might be heading, you’d be both right and very wrong… The trio hang out together for a few months, and nothing much seems to change except Jong-su gets more morose and suspicious of  the rich “Gatsby”-like Ben and Hae-mi. One evening while smoking dope out at Jong-su dad’s house out in the country, Ben confesses that he has a strange hobby – every few months he burns down a farm greenhouse for fun, noting that there’s plenty of them in this rural area… Then Hae-mi promptly vanishes.

The story comes from one of Haruki Murakami’s enigmatic novels, “Barn Burning” which leaves the central mystery unresolved. Lee Chang-dong’s masterfully stark and tantalising adaption takes a slightly different approach, though after the disappearance, I was half expecting to find that Hae-mi and/or Ben (like that cat) were all a figment of the infuriatingly passive Jong-su’s imagination – a half-completed writing project on his laptop. Conceivably, that is one interpretation, though taking the increasingly strange events at their face value also gives us some deeply satisfying but very dark metaphors about contemporary Korean life to ponder. Which you will be – long after this potent, haunting, and very disturbing masterpiece finishes. 

Korea has an impressively lively art cinema scene, and many films, like this director’s tetchy earlier works (Secret Sunshine, Poetry) offer scathing critiques of modern life. But we rarely, if ever see them at inner west arthouses. I’ve seen more films in the last decade from tiny Iceland at the (nearly) all-white Palace and Dendy than from all of Asia. If this mysterious and very smart potboiler is any guide, we’ve been missing out big time. M from April 18 Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central and Dendy Newtown ★★★★1/2

Also opening this week

It’s unlikely that cannabis legalisation will feature much as an issue in the Federal election, even though the one political party that always does well in the inner west (The Greens) is pushing just that as a priority policy. For those interested in the issue though, Breaking Habits – a fascinating doco about a group of dope smoking Californian “nuns” who grow and sell cannabis makes fascinating viewing. It’s a strange story, and one that reveals some uncomfortable truths about the push for cannabis legalisation. Our review here – screening at Palace Norton St and Dendy Newtown from April 18.

The Spanish Film Festival starts its month-long run at Palace Cinemas on April 16, this year incorporating the once separate Cine Latino Film Festival as a strand. As in all film festivals nowadays, expect a fair smattering of movies with “LGBTIQ themes” (one of the tags publicists put on films so that we dumb folk in the media know where to slot them). We’ve been able to preview one so far, the teen lesbian love affair Carmen & Lola, which features in the Spotlight on Female Directors strand. Its tale of young forbidden love is a familiar one, though its setting within a deeply traditional gypsy community on the scruffy outskirts of Madrid is refreshingly new.

The two girls are both model-thin and prone to wearing ultra skimpy short-shorts, leading Hollywood Reporter’s reviewer to label them “too vanilla and hetero-friendly.” Well whatever… those Spanish teens sure are pretty. But both are weighed down by by the sort of deeply entrenched homophobia and patriarchal expectations of conformity that hardly anyone in the West has to endure these days. The views expressed by their horrified parents would make Israel Folau look enlightened. What is most intriguing about this debut feature from Arantxa Echevarria’s is how far it strays from the usual cliches of free-spirited gypsy life. Freedom is a relative concept, clearly. MA15+ At Palace Cinemas ★★★1/2

Reviews – Russell Edwards