Lee Chang-dong is by no means the most prolific of the many great South Korean directors to come to major prominence in the 21st Century: Burning, his sixth feature, comes to us after a long eight-year gap since his fifth, 2010's lovely Poetry. But he does maybe put up a real fight to be considered one of the most important filmmakers from that nation - he directed 2002's Oasis, the individual film most responsible for thrusting Korean cinema into the international spotlight. And so, despite the slenderness of his filmography, every one of Lee's films is still something of an event, worthy of attention and respect.

If that wasn't enough, Burning adds another layer of prestige by adapting a short story by Murakami Haruki, 1983's "Barn Burning". Despite being one of the most iconic living authors, Murakami's work has largely eluded filmmakers; Burning is only the sixth feature, and easily the biggest, based on his prose. I have not read "Barn Burning" and cannot say how well the script by Lee and Oh Jung-mi captures it, but there is something of Murakami's elliptical quality and his offbeat command of tone that flashes up here and there throughout the film. It feels somewhat like Lee's referendum on Murakami, using one set of stylistic conventions in one medium to comment on a different set of stylistic conventions in another medium.

But I am no Murakami expert and would certainly get myself in trouble if I go too far down that path. There's plenty to deal with just in Burning by itself, some of it marvelous and some of it... well, nothing at any point is "bad". But a lot of it is so willfully austere that it's awfully hard to say, in the moment, why you're watching it. So here's the plot, anyway: Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a working class nobody who has lately been tasked with taking care of the family farm while his father is in prison, runs into an old schoolmate, Shin Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo). She immediately rekindles the friendship that they apparently never had in the first place, they sleep together, and he agrees to catsit while she's away in Africa. When she returns, it's in the company of a gorgeous son of privilege, Ben (Steven Yeun). Ben's deal is very unclear, but his evident wealth, and his ease at attracting Hae-mi despite showing only the most casual interest in her or, frankly, in anything else, both stir a jealousy in Jong-su that he keeps clamped down.

Burning is 148 minutes long, and I have just taken us to a little bit after the halfway point. This isn't good or bad. It just is. Very much like the movie just is. I think the thing that frustrates me about Burning is that it's told entirely through Jong-su's very pointedly limited perspective, which is more or less defined by his inability to figure out what's going on in Ben's head, and his disinterest in figuring out what's going on in Hae-mi's. He's himself a character lacking a fully-formed center, acting impulsively and disastrously throughout the film specifically because he can't or won't reflect on himself. Not a bad way to approach a tough psychological drama, but it means that Burning basically can't do anything to go inside those characters. And in order to make the last 65 minutes land with a resounding impact - and oh, they do, and I want both to talk about them a lot and not talk about them at all - the filmmakers have deliberately stripped out virtually all of the plot momentum from the first 75.

Which leaves a whole lot of nothing, and I am perhaps a dimwit, but I don't think it's generative nothing, either. It's slow cinema taken to a logical extreme, so slow that it has actually stopped, and only picks up when Ben finally reveals one thing about himself, but does it in such vague language that it begs Jong-su to make terrible assumptions. After that point, the extreme shift in momentum (the film is still pretty slow, but even a meandering stroll is fast after you've been standing still) feels pretty important, and the sense that Jong-su is going to make every wrong choice open to him, as we both sympathise and find ourselves horribly incapable of stopping him is great. But I do wonder if there was a more efficient, or at least a less - forgive me - fucking boring, way of getting there.

Granting that, the film is at least visually pleasurable: the blocking has the simple perfection of a great student of the human animal who knows how to arrange people in a room, in front of a camera, so that we'll feel comfortable noticing all of them and still end up looking at the right person at the right instant (this happens twice, in very obviously parallel scenes). There is one rack focus, that shifts from a medium close-up to Jong-su to the trees off in the background, that is one of my favorite things I've seen in a movie all year; it's such a clean, elegant way to depict the gap between our protagonist and the world he lives in, decentering him and his confusion and just letting us soak in the environment. There's a marathon-length twilight scene that's a real coup of distending time (it took over a month of sunsets to shoot it all), creating an abstract, timeless, ghostly moment out of nothing but the ingredients of sparse location-based realism.

It creates a mood, all right, and the three actors are all strong, accounting for the fact that Jun has an opaque, underwritten charcter who turns out to be more of a prop than a figure in her own right, and Yeun has to be specifically impossible for us to figure out. The opening 75 minutes might be static, but they're not empty. They're just... unproductive. At any rate, the building anxiety of the second half of the movie, as Jong-su plays amateur detective without knowing what crime he's even investigating, gets down deep into your bones. And the climax, filmed from one fixed position that feels pragmatic and observant while also inducing a sense of deep-down terror that we're just standing and watching something awful about which we can do nothing, is superb. By all means, take my star rating with a grain of salt, and trust that I think each and every one of you should see the movie - just be ready for that movie to spend a lot of time annoying you for no obvious reason before it gets to the good stuff.