Cannes delivers a triumph with Lee Chang-dong’s slow-‘Burning’ masterwork

The 71st Cannes Film Festival is underway (May 8-19), and L.A. Times critic Justin Chang is there, seeing as many movies as possible and writing about it for a day-by-day, film-by-film diary. This is one in a series of entries spanning from the opening festivities to closing night. For more entries and reviews, click here.

Before the 71st Festival de Cannes had even begun, the word on the Croisette — that storied boulevard that winds its way along the beach through this small French Riviera town — was that we were in for the weakest lineup in recent memory. Abandoned by Netflix, devoid of Oscar bait and attended by just a handful of Hollywood stars, the grande dame of film festivals was clearly flailing with a slate of movies from a bunch of international filmmakers you’ve never heard of and couldn’t possibly be interested in getting acquainted with.

As a Los Angeles-based critic, I try to maintain an even temper about the persistent American Cinema First attitude — call it cultural incuriosity at best, outright xenophobia at worst — that poisons much of the so-called discourse around our movies.

Cutting-edge world cinema may be this festival’s true raison d’être, but it has always needed a delicate balance of blockbusters (like this year’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story”) and English-language awards contenders in order to survive, thrive and attract media attention. In a film industry subject to enormous financial and technological change, that need may be stronger than ever.

Even still, declaring a festival lineup worthless is something best done after you’ve seen a number of the films and found them wanting, not before. And with this year’s Cannes now more than halfway over, I feel confident in saying that, far from being the worst, it strikes me as one of the stronger, more robustly surprising slates in recent memory, provided that filmmakers with names like Jafar Panahi, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Jia Zhangke and Bi Gan don’t send you screaming from the theater.

In the main competition, which is but one of several strands in the festival, the Asian titles have been almost uniformly strong. That isn’t always or even usually the case. Their representation has been spotty over the past decade, and it’s been eight years since a film by an Asian filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” won the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize.

A number of viable Palme contenders have already emerged so far, among them Spike Lee’s blisteringly funny and topical entertainment “BlacKkKlansman,” Pawel Pawlikowski’s exquisite doomed romance “Cold War” and Alice Rohrwacher’s delicate humanist fable “Happy as Lazzaro.”

But to my mind, it was Lee Chang-dong who pretty much torched the competition Wednesday night with “Burning,” a quietly riveting stunner that marks this South Korean writer-director’s first return to filmmaking, and to Cannes, since his prize-winning 2010 drama, “Poetry.”

Expertly adapted and elaborated from a 1992 Haruki Murakami short story, “Burning” follows a shy, inarticulate young man named Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) who divides his time between Seoul and his family’s farm in a border town called Paju. Early on in the movie, Jongsu is reunited with a childhood friend, Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), whom he quickly becomes smitten with, though she almost-but-not-quite tosses him aside for an independently rich boy named Ben (“The Walking Dead’s” Steven Yeun), whose every gesture of friendship and generosity toward Jongsu carries an unmistakable whiff of superiority. And also something more, something undefinably sinister.

At 2½ hours, “Burning” is a character study that morphs, with masterly patience, subtlety and nary a single wasted minute, into a teasing mystery and eventually a full-blown thriller. To reveal more would ruin the story’s slow-building pleasures, which are less about the haunting final destination than the subtle, razor-sharp microcurrents of class rage, family-inherited pain, everyday ennui and youthful despair that build in scene after scene, even when nothing more seems to be happening than a simple or not-so-simple conversation.

I first discovered Lee’s work at Cannes in 2007, when his wrenching drama “Secret Sunshine” premiered in competition. Both that film and “Poetry” confirmed him as a master of psychological portraiture, with an understanding of human fragility and an unsparing emotional ruthlessness that I have yet to encounter in the films of any other director working today.

“To me, the world is a mystery,” Jongsu confesses in the movie’s most piercingly sad line. He could be speaking for any of the broken men and women who find themselves under Lee’s dramatic microscope, the fully formed creations of a filmmaker who offers no easy solutions, only the consolations of art.

A scene from the movie “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Bai Linghai

Seductive ‘Journey’

A film as good as “Burning” can make your festival. But in a sign of this year’s embarrassment of riches, it was merely the second half of an extraordinary double bill that may constitute the best five hours of cinema I’ve ever devoured at Cannes in one fell swoop. The first half was “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (“Di Qiu Zui Hou De Yan Wan”), the swooningly beautiful and technically staggering second feature from the prodigiously gifted 28-year-old Chinese director Bi Gan.

Bi turned heads a couple of years ago with his entrancing debut, “Kaili Blues,” which featured, among other things, an unbroken 40-minute tracking shot. He outdoes that technical triumph and then some in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which has nothing to do with Eugene O’Neill. It’s a melancholy, noirish dream of a movie played in the key of early Wong Kar-wai, built on the embers of a long-dissolved romance.

The first hour or so is a seductive memory piece unfolded in elusive yet tantalizing narrative fragments, but things really kick into gear in the second half, with a 55-minute tour de force of sustained mobile camerawork to rival such one-take wonders as “Russian Ark” — and in 3-D, to boot. It’s like a Max Ophüls movie on crack, and the most magical piece of cinema I’ve seen in Cannes in many a year.

Under the Silver Lake
Andrew Garfield in the movie “Under the Silver Lake.” A24

Ready Player Noir

“Burning” wasn’t the only roughly 2½-hour film in competition this week about a lonely young man investigating a woman’s disappearance and stumbling on more questions than answers. But while Lee’s movie doesn’t waste one of its 150 minutes, “Under the Silver Lake,” an L.A. noir pastiche from American writer-director David Robert Mitchell (“It Follows”), is an eccentric and amusingly self-indulgent affair, as sprawling as the city in which it unfolds.

Similarities in premise and theme are never rare in Cannes, a festival that consciously or unconsciously puts different films in conversation with each other. There’s also the fact that a lack of sleep and steady nourishment can heighten our awareness of these strange, subliminal connections. Or maybe they’re just causing all the films to blur together so incomprehensibly that we start making up patterns and parallels that only we can see.

As it happens, the thrills of paranoid puzzle solving, of obsessively decoding riddles that might be entirely of our own devising, are central to “Under the Silver Lake.” It follows (sorry) a slackerish dude (Andrew Garfield, playing well against type) who’s facing eviction from his apartment but, rather than trying to scrounge up the money or get a job, immerses himself in a quasi-whodunit involving the disappearance of the neighborhood Hitchcock blonde (Riley Keough).

From there the plot bends and baffles in ways that I am neither obliged nor able to summarize. A billionaire has gone missing, and a dog killer is on the loose, but how these things connect — or whether they connect at all — is a matter the film seems content to postpone indefinitely.

When A24 releases the movie June 22, some may well set the plot entirely aside and devote themselves to tracking all the references that Mitchell has slyly embedded in the material: It’s “Mulholland Dr.” meets “The Long Goodbye” meets “Inherent Vice” meets “The Big Lebowski.” It’s Ready Player Noir.

But if “Under the Silver Lake” is overly taken with its own cinephilic cool, I found its self-indulgence surprisingly easy to roll with — and not just because it’s a hoot to fly six thousand miles to the South of France just so you can see places like Intelligentsia Coffee, Echo Park Lake and Griffith Park Observatory on the big screen.

It’s the way Mitchell frames those and other L.A. locations, in expansive, underpopulated widescreen images that have an alienating dreaminess. As Garfield’s character traces and retraces his footsteps, digging a little deeper each time, you may not care about what he finds, but you’re all too happy to get lost along the way.

justin.chang@latimes.com