“Burning,” from South Korea’s Lee Chang-dong, is a beautifully cryptic slow burner that lingers long in the senses. It’s the kind of film where you obsess over what it means, the better to avoid thinking about how it makes you feel. Based on a short story (“Barn Burning”) by cult author Haruki Murakami, it plays more like one of Patricia Highsmith’s unsettling power-play suspense tales, but with the talented Mr. Ripley off to one side while his victim (or one of them) assumes center stage. And wherever you think it’s going? It’s not. Some of us go to the movies for this.
There’s an innocent, a country boy named Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), with a job running deliveries in the big city while he dreams of becoming a writer. One day, he meets a girl from his hometown, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), as complacent and as mercurial as a cat. She remembers him, he doesn’t remember her; in his defense, she says, she’s had plastic surgery since high school. This may or may not be true.
But truth is slippery in “Burning,” which is told resolutely from Jong-su’s point of view until it’s probably too late. Tiny mysteries abound, including the existence of Hae-mi’s pet cat, which she talks her new friend into feeding while she’s away but which never materializes. Hae-mi herself is learning the art of mime, which she says is less about pretending something is there and more about forgetting that it isn’t.
These are all things to rock a once-and-(maybe)-future boyfriend back on his heels. The first time the two make love, Jong-su catches a glimpse of the only moment of sunlight that makes its way into Hae-mi’s cramped apartment, reflecting off a clock-tower across the street. It’s there, it’s lovely, and it’s gone, much like Hae-mi’s affections. Or Hae-mi herself.
To complicate matters, Hae-mi returns from her trip with a new friend in tow. Ben (Steven Yeun) is so much of everything that Jong-su is not — rich, witty, blessed with impeccable taste in clothes and décor and hip young friends — that you wilt for the hero even as you’re drawn to his rival. Yeun is a Korean-American actor who’s been very busy in US TV and who had a supporting role in last summer’s indie hit “Sorry to Bother You.” Here, he’s nothing short of a revelation — or, rather, he’s wickedly sly about revealing Ben’s ulterior motives (if, indeed, Ben has any).
So “Burning” is about social paranoia on one level, and how Jong-su’s uncertainty over Ben’s intentions toward Hae-mi start pooling out into a grander, more existential undoing. To add to the country mouse’s problems, the country keeps yanking him back, to the dairy farm that his cantankerous father (Choi Seung-ho) has abandoned after getting jailed for fighting with a neighbor. All the urbane sophistication the kid hoped was sticking to him threatens to flee; the North Korean propaganda broadcasts from across the nearby DMZ start to sound like voices in Jong-su’s head.
There are moments in “Burning” that defy categorization but that land with a mysterious, expanding hush. They can be as small as the smile and barely perceptible wink Ben gives Jong-su in a party scene, inviting him in on a joke the younger man doesn’t quite get. They can be as luxuriant and lengthy as a sequence at sunset at Jong-su’s farm, Hae-mi impulsively singing and dancing in the nude and then Ben confessing to awful doings as the light almost unnoticably fades away. The awful doings may in fact be a metaphor for something even more unspeakable.
“Burning” could be about metaphor, actually — about the way people make things stand in for other things, ideas for ideas, emotions for emotions, until the only way to cut through the abstraction is with obsession, or violence. Previous Lee movies like “Poetry” (2010) resist easy synopsis, but this one does taper toward a reckoning in which the rules get broken and the unsaid finally becomes explicit. Indeed, “Burning” may be the sneakiest, most metaphysical horror movie of the year, about a young writer who lives for metaphors until it’s suddenly time to get literal.
Directed by Lee Chang-dong. Written by Lee, Oh Jung-mi, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami. Starring Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo, Steven Yeun. At Kendall Square. 148 minutes. In Korean, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.