With the world the way it is, it’s no wonder young people everywhere find themselves lost and confused, unable to find a sense of greater purpose when all they see is futility. Eight years on from Poetry which revolved around a grandmother’s growing sense of disquiet on realising no one cares about the victim of her grandson’s transgression, Lee Chang-dong returns with a story of frustrated youth as three conflicted souls are drawn into a spiral of resentments, jealousies and forlorn hopes.
Our hero, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), is an aspiring writer currently working a series of casual blue collar jobs to get by in the city. One such job unexpectedly brings him into contact with Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend from his home town he didn’t quite recognise. “Plastic surgery” she quips, though she seems happy enough to see him which comes as a surprise to Jong-su, awkward as he is. Hae-mi invites him for drinks over which she asks him a favour – to look after her cat while she goes off to Africa for a bit in response to the call of “great hunger”. Jong-su agrees, but has also agreed to go home to Paju to look after the family’s last remaining cow seeing as his dad, whom he hates, has got himself arrested after getting into a fight with a public official. Before she leaves for Africa, Jong-su begins a sexual relationship with Hae-mi which he seems to think is a sign of a deeper attachment, but when she rings and asks him to pick her up from the airport he is dismayed to find she’s in the company of another man – Ben (Steven Yeun), a handsome, sophisticated, and very wealthy Korean she was accidentally marooned with for three days in Nairobi waiting for a plane.
A man like Ben is an existential threat to one like Jong-su. He doesn’t even put up a fight when Ben, whose friend has been secretly following Jong-su’s rundown pickup all the way back to the city in his Porsche, offers to take Hae-mi the rest of the way. A farm boy from rural backwater Paju, he feels himself inferior, bumpkinish, and unrefined as Ben subtly undermines his self-confidence in order to boost his own sense of superiority. Jong-su, invited to Ben’s upscale condo for “pasta”, is instantly uncomfortable. Eventually unable to mask his rising resentment, he rudely lays into his host while smoking with Hae-mi out on the balcony by musing on how a man in early middle age can afford to live like this – cooking pasta and listening to music, driving a Porsche, owning a Gagnam apartment. In the first of many barbed comments which won’t help his cause, Jong-su asks Hae-mi what exactly she thinks Ben is doing with someone like her. She replies that he says he finds her “interesting”, but the sadness in her eyes implies that she’s already given this question more than a degree of thought.
Ben remains a cypher. Though his manner is charming, even superficially kind, there’s something unsettling about him, a kind of creeping hollowness coupled with unpredictability. Rattled, Jong-su starts going through his bathroom cupboards and finds a ladies’ makeup box and a draw full of trinkets which seem to have belonged to several different women. At the very least, Ben has not been honest with Hae-mi, but Jong-su doesn’t say anything. Jong-su, less naive, is also well aware of the way Ben has been trotting them out for entertainment value at dinner parties frequented by his wealthy friends who take in the country bumpkin freak show with cruel superiority. Ben, however, is already bored – yawning ostentatiously but making a conspiratorial show of locking eyes with Jong-su who he knows is on to him in more ways than one.
Unexpectedly rocking up at Jong-su’s rundown Paju farmhouse, Ben plants a kernel of intrigue in Jong-su’s fragile mind by telling him about his “hobby” of burning down random “greenhouses” just for the hell of it. Despite his literary pretensions, Jong-su takes Ben’s words at face value and misses the obvious subtext. Whatever Ben is or might be, men like him delight in destroying fragile things to mask their own fragility. Jong-su takes the bait and the “metaphorical” fire Ben has lit within him begins to catch.
Ben, who finds Hae-mi’s tears “fascinating” because he has never cried, says he burns things to feel his soul vibrate. Hae-mi, meanwhile, remains frustratingly distant to both men. She talks about spiritual hunger and longs to find some kind of meaning in a world of futility but also longs to disappear like an all too brief sunset. She “reminds” Jong-su of a childhood incident in which she fell into a well behind her family’s farm and eventually found salvation in the sudden appearance of his face, but Jong-su doesn’t even remember. Hae-mi is in a sense still living at the bottom of a well, staring at the sky and waiting for rescue only to find herself continually abandoned, friendless and alone.
Then again, perhaps nothing she’s told Jong-su is true. Hae-mi’s answer to want is imagination, a simple ability to “forget” a desired object does not already exist. She asks Jong-su to look after a cat who is so shy he begins to wonder if it’s real, reassured only by an empty food bowl and full litter tray. Jong-su is our “writer”, but the only thing he writes is a petition letter to get the father he can’t stand an appeal for crime he knows he committed. He is our guide to “truth” but his job is to engineer narrative – the story is his to direct and the ending his to choose. He writes because “the world is a mystery” to him, but remains trapped within his own petty preoccupations in which the full weight of his rage levels towards Ben whose existence seems so unfair.
Burdened by a strangely feudal deference, Jong-su is a fuse slowly catching light. Failed by family, he and Hae-mi are abandoned children looking for a way out. They thought they wanted out of Paju, but perhaps they were meant to be together in this place if the world were better and there were no more playboy kings like Ben, eager to do “anything for fun” in order to escape the emptiness of their existence in which inherited wealth has left them purposeless and hugely insecure despite the superficial confidence of class. Jong-su and Hae-mi chase brief moments of sunlight bounced back from the gleaming spires of an inaccessible city but find no relief or promise in its greying skies. Adapting a short story by Haruki Murakami, Lee Chang-dong paints a dizzying picture of a tinderbox world in which the rage of the oppressed little guy threatens to engulf us all while those best placed to help only want to fan the flames.
Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.
US trailer (English subtitles)