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Asia on top as Korean thriller leaves Cannes breathless

© Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival | Ah-in Yoo stars in Lee Chang-dong's "Burning".

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2018-05-18

Human bulldogs and lapdogs square up in Matteo Garrone’s brutal “Dogman”, while obsessive love is flammable in Lee Chang-dong’s beautiful “Burning”.

The Cannes Film Festival delivered its first awards last night with top honours in the Critics’ Week sidebar going to zany political satire “Diamantino”, in which a dim-witted Ronaldo lookalike dribbles past giant candyfloss poodles as he aims for goal and glory. The film’s surreal fluff balls will have another shot at silverware when the 2018 Palme Dog – rewarding the best canine performance – is unveiled later on. But their chances took a hit this morning with the screening of Matteo Garrone’s latest competition entry “Dogman”. The Italian director has all but rigged the contest, cramming his movie with pit bulls, spaniels, beagles, a humongous great dane and even a frozen chihuahua. As Palm Dog Award founder Toby Rose put it, “we’re dogged out to the eyeballs this year”.

“Dogman” has its own canine competition, a pet grooming tournament in which the film’s protagonist Marcello takes bronze (by then we’ve figured out this gentle, slender character is anything but a winner). Featuring some outrageously coiffed lapdogs, it is one of several sweetly amusing scenes in what is otherwise a desperately bleak film, inspired by a grisly murder that shocked Italy in the late 1980s. For Garrone, “Dogman” marks a welcome return to the naturalistic style of his savage Neapolitan mob drama “Gomorrah”, which picked up the Grand Prix in Cannes 10 years ago.

The Italian director has credited lead actor Marcello Fonte with inspiring him to complete a project that had been dormant for over a decade. A diminutive figure with a face for cinema (though not quite the heartthrob parts), Fonte is superb as the mild-mannered owner of a shabby poodle parlour who makes a little extra cash peddling drugs. Marcello is quite content with his simple life, but this is no dolce vita. His world is a scruffy and derelict suburban jungle of hastily constructed apartments blocks, semi-abandoned warehouses and pot-holed dirt roads – all filmed with the rigorous geometry of a Renaissance painting.

Marcello brings his own warmth and tenderness to this sinister wasteland, gently stroking, brushing and shampooing the fiercest of dogs (some larger than him) while whispering “amore” in their ears. But there is one beast he cannot tame: the hulking and brutish former boxer Simone (Edoardo Pesce), who has a habit of beating up anyone or anything that stands in his way. Marcello thinks he can appease his bully of a friend with the odd line of coke. Instead, he is soon dragged into a hellish spiral of crime, punishment and vengeance.

While we’ve had many strong female roles in the festival so far, “Dogman” plunges us into a brutally male world in which even the most fearsome dogs are out-savaged by men. Pesce and Fonte are both excellent in their bulldog-lapdog act, brilliantly conveying the mix of repulsion and fascination that binds their two characters together. Marcello’s quest for dignity in a world governed by bullies, and his extraordinary resilience, give the film a humane quality – but the tragic finale is mercilessly bleak.

In retrospect, Garrone’s powerful portrayal of male insecurities further emphasised the extraordinary depth of character achieved by the previous competition entry, Lee Chang-dong’s sumptuous “Burning”. A haunting slow burner shrouded in mystery, this South Korean romantic thriller has its own intriguing confrontation between two very different male characters, though this time they’re locked in a love triangle. Freely based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, it marks Lee’s first return to the French Riviera since his remarkable “Poetry” won the best screenplay award here in 2010.

Ah-in Yoo plays Jongsu, a demure country boy with hunched shoulders and a bewildered gaze, who falls for a young dancer named Haemi (Jong-seo Jun). Jongsu starts off cool and detached, but he soon faces a losing duel when Haemi shows up with the handsome, suave and sophisticated Ben (Steven Yeun). Early on in the film, there is a wrenching scene in which the weaker character effectively takes himself out of the picture, as is so often the case in life. Haemi gives him a look that screams, “Don’t let him take me away from you”. But Jongsu is paralysed by his sense of inferiority, and then consumed by resentment once the battle is lost.

From left to right: Jong-seo Jun, Steven Yeun, Ah-in Yoo and Lee Chang-dong at the Cannes photocall for "Burning". © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

An aspiring novelist, Jongsu finds it hard to express much both in writing and in speech, particularly when his slick and confident rival is around. Infused with class privilege and jealousy, the film doesn't reveal what Ben does or how he became fabulously rich. He’s one of “Korea’s many Gatsbys”, says a bitter Jongsu, in a jab at the country’s growing wealth gap and its many nouveaux riches. One thing Ben does chillingly confess is his bizarre, sociopathic hobby – which, in one of the film’s many unsolved riddles, may well conceal something far more sinister.

Lee Chang-dong has a way of filming his characters that is extraordinarily beautiful and humane. While the male rivals make for a wonderful study in contrasts, the film also gives substance and depth to Haemi, using her character as a spokesperson for Korean youths' existential angst and their yearning for beauty and meaning in life. Powered by a superb musical score and some ravishing close-ups, “Burning” continues to build on Asian filmmakers’ impressive run in Cannes after Jia Zhangke’s marvellous “Ash is Purest White”. More power to them.

Date created : 2018-05-17

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