Expectations can indeed be thrillingly confounded. But often equally satisfying is seeing promise fulfilled, as is the case with Lee Chang-dong’s standout competition entry Burning, the South Korean director’s first film in eight years and a consensus masterpiece, if its average 3.8 rating on the Screen International jury grid (surpassing Toni Erdmann’s previous record of 3.7) is any indication. A steady follow-shot picks up Jonhsu (Yoo Ah-in), a barely-employed, aspiring writer, as he makes a delivery to a Seoul department store blowout sale, but ends up leaving with Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), a dancer who claims to have known him from his rural hometown. An uneasy tryst in a cramped apartment follows soon after, with Lee’s camera craning around the lovers to settle on a fringe of light reflected by a nearby tower.
“What kind of story are you writing?” someone asks the listless protagonist, whose floating discontent is palpable from frame one. Adapted (and expanded) from Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” and co-written with Oh Jung-Mi, Lee’s film is a sinuous evocation of a thriller, yet somehow devoid of outright incident. A trip to Africa leaves Jonhsu with the task of feeding Haemi’s notoriously shy cat, whom he never sees; her return with Ben (Steven Yuen), wealthy, worldly and mysterious (a Korean Gatsby, in Jonhsu’s assessment), leaves him with a new acquaintance, but without a girlfriend. Meanwhile, Lee’s camera moves with assurance, capturing an awkward dance and the pulsing gyrations of a club with equal acuity. A shared joint between the three at sunset—the starting point of Murakami’s story—occasions two revelations: Haemi’s melancholy desire to “vanish like a sunset” and Ben’s aberrant obsession with burning abandon greenhouses. (The “best pace”? One every two months, Ben tells a slack-jawed Jonhsu.) When two weeks later, Jonhsu runs into Ben but remains unable to reach Haemi, the details quiver with possibility. Hong Kyung-pyo’s limpid cinematography renders noir-ish stalkings and sordid thriller scenarios in frigid shades of blue and burnished orange; Kim Da-won’s bass-y, nerve-jangling score quickens the pulse; a sense of malice thrums beneath placid surfaces and smooth exteriors. Always, Lee’s patient, expansive vision aims to reveal. If Secret Sunshine was a methodical excavation of melodrama, Burning is a masterful explication of “simultaneous existence.” It’s a film that understands the power of suggestion—the force of a silent, fiery nightmare—and “rings to the very bones.”
Whereas Lee is able to achieve scalpel-like precision and luminous intensity with Burning, Matteo Garrone achieves only blunt, sledgehammer force with his competition entry Dogman. Inspired by a gruesome 1980s Italian homicide case, the film observes diminutive, servile dog-groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) and his uneasy existence in the surrounding ganglands of Rome, beset by the coked-out, cruel aggression of ex-boxer and petty criminal Simone (Edoardo Pesce), who periodically brings him on odd jobs. (A scene with a half-frozen Chihuahua demonstrates both Simone’s unthinking cruelty and Marcello’s gentle naïveté.) An early scene hints at a sense of community—of genuine place—surrounding the brutal, linear trajectory, but Garrone’s camera often seems more interested in sordid escalation than genuine exploration, some brief passages aimed at locating a sense of human dignity (with Marcello’s daughter, primarily), notwithstanding. Entirely fitting, then, that in the final wide-shot of Marcello, alone, surrounded by crumbling facades, humanity itself seems to have disappeared.
That very literalization is the fiendishly clever hook of Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room, which follows Valeska Grisebach's Western as the year’s Berlin School entry in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section. What initially looks to be a wry political comedy quickly morphs into a character study of Armin (Hans Löw), middle-aged and somewhat depressive, as he returns to his hometown to visit his dying grandmother—and that's just the first of its transformational pivots. How better, after all, to examine a man's loneliness than to have humanity disappear around him? This is the first of Köhler’s that films I've seen, but I was immediately taken by his methodical matter-of-factness, particularly regarding the sci-fi development of the story, which registers less as a twist than a rippling psychological extension. Armin’s bafflement initially gives way to despair (involving a failed suicide attempt and a bloodied canine), but then transforms convincingly into a strange wonderment: A single cut takes us from urban disarray into pastoral calm, with the time jump signaled by Löw’s newly-toned physique. (It’s a transformation that brought to mind the shift of Melancholia—though Köhler’s methodical genre-bending is far from von Trier's apocalyptic enormity.) “I want to be independent,” declares the last man on earth, a statement that Köhler’s protean vision bears out remarkably well, with a largely unemphatic, unadorned camera style that smooths out the variations and shifts in genre. (A pivot in the second hour, involving yet another bloodied canine, is finely judged.) Procedural pleasures (the construction of a hydro-electric power source) intersect with goofy, liberating detail (an impromptu dance at a gas station). There's an evident pleasure the film takes in the act of learning, foremost. After all, what else is one to do when the world becomes one’s room?
Another film that understands what it's like for the world to be contained in a single room (and which also features another canine, un-bloodied this time): Mamoru Hosoda's animated Directors' Fortnight entry Mirai, about a four-year-old boy, Kun (voiced by Moka Kamishiraishi) whose existence is upended by the birth of his younger sister. Suffused equally with the casual enormity of childhood and the dawning melancholy of age (in that regard recalling Takahata's Only Yesterday), it's a film that leaps and bounds through time, attuned to both sense memories and whimsical flights of fancy: A garden suspended between a playroom and dining room becomes a veritable arena of possibility. A splash of rain sweeps Kun up in a gleaming silvery spiral, bearing him back to an afternoon of his mother's childhood; a bicycle lesson occasions an untold remembrance of Kun's grandfather, who piloted fighter planes in WWII and was injured thereafter. In the film's most memorable passage, a petty tantrum leads Kun to the purgatory of a gleaming train station, its cavernous, geometric spaces and teeming activity, then segues into a colorfully visualized dive into a family history: a foray into the improbable butterfly effect of a single existence. Unabashedly goofy, occasionally treacly, but often enchanting, Hosoda's film captures both the elasticity and rigidness of childhood: a form of confinement that nonetheless contains entire worlds.
The festival is coming to a close, but it’s films like these that make me feel like there’s still so much to discover.