Lee Chang-dong’s Burning: A Momentous Achievement

Tim Page

When considering the state of Hollywood in 2018, it is hard not to be overcome by a wave of depression. Every year our cinemas are filled with sequels of big budget blockbuster franchises – Fast and Furious 9 perhaps representing the nadir of this trend of seemingly endless series.  Even the ‘serious’ fare nominated for Academy Awards fails to inspire – note the excretable Golden Globe winner Bohemian Rhapsody. South Korean cinema, however, is a stark contrast. Perhaps unbeknownst to many here in Australia, for decades South Korea has been producing some of the finest, most innovative films in the world. 2018’s Burning, directed by Lee Chang-dong and loosely based on a short story by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, is no exception. Burning was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year and recently concluded a limited theatrical run in Australia.

Burning is a film of great power – a haunting, deeply unsettling work which you will revisit in your mind over and over, questioning what you previously believed and your reasons for doing so. This film makes you feel as if you’re slowly falling into a suffocating trap. It’s ambiguities and contradictions almost necessitate multiple viewings.

A young man, Jong-su, (Yoo Ah-in) has a chance encounter with a female childhood neighbour, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). Both are lonely young people adrift in the world. Hae-mi departs for a trip to Africa and requests Jong-su sit her apartment and watch over her cat ‘Boil’- a mysterious feline that never shows itself to Jong-su, somehow hiding away in the tiny, cramped apartment.  Hae-mi returns from holiday accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun, known for his role as Glenn on The Walking Dead) – an effete, cosmopolitan ‘Gatsby’ living in a penthouse in Gangnam, one of Seoul’s most affluent suburbs.

The contrast between Jong-su and Ben is obvious from the beginning. Ben is the very image of a modern, Westernized Korean. Rich, confident, charming and comfortable with his place in society. Jong-Su is a precariously employed ‘writer’ who seems to do very little actual writing, living on his imprisoned fathers rustic farm, surrounded by the noises of North Korean propaganda from across the nearby border. His distaste for Ben is obvious from the start – he resents not only the theft of his erstwhile lover but the very facts of Ben’s existence.

In a sequence that almost borders on comic, Ben continually invites Jong-su to high society dinners and dates, alongside himself and Hae-mi. His motivations are somewhat unclear – does he genuinely see Jong-su as a potential friend or is he merely poking and prodding, toying with  a hapless social inferior?

One day, as dusk approaches, Ben invites himself and Hae-mi over to Jong-su’s farm, arriving in a luxury sports car. While watching the sunset, Ben reveals to Jong-su his odd hobby – finding abandoned greenhouses in the countryside and burning them every two months, as a way to find meaning in the meaninglessness of life. The South Korean police, Ben explains, do not care about mere greenhouses – they are unworthy of existence. Shortly after this encounter Hae-mi goes missing. Jong-su is drawn to the conclusion that Ben is a serial killer and ‘burning greenhouses’ is a euphemism for his murders.  Jong-su stalks Ben, finding new pieces of ‘evidence’ that only strengthen this belief – in Ben’s apartment he discovers Hae-mi’s plastic watch and a cat that answers to the name Boil. In the final scene, Jong-su lures Ben to a lonely stretch of road and stabs him to death, burning the bloody clothes and Ben’s corpse in his vehicle, seemingly having gotten away with the perfect murder.

What then, are we to make of all this? Is Burning really just a simple thriller about a man seeking revenge for his murdered girlfriend? To be sure, the film is perfectly enjoyable viewed merely on this level. But so much more can be found by peeling back the layers. The film’s primary storyline revolves not around romance but around the feud between Jong-su and Ben – the female character Hae-mi in many respects seems to exist only as a plot device, something to be fought over between the two male characters. However, it seems plausible that the character is deliberately written in such a shallow way to make a point about the status of women in Korean society and beyond.  Hae-mi is not so much a real person to Jong-su but a fantasy, a cypher, a character he wishes he could write about.  At a party hosted by Ben, Hae-mi shares a concept she gleaned from time spent amongst the Kalahari bushmen – that of ‘Big Hunger’ and ‘Little Hunger’. Little Hunger denotes actual physical malnourishment, whereas Big Hunger is a kind of spiritual malnourishment – a failure to find something bigger and more meaningful than oneself.

To Jong-su, Hae-mi is a way of filling this hunger, but she is an unreliable, potentially dishonest person. At one point, she shares with him a story from their childhood – she had once fallen in a well and been trapped for hours before finally being rescued by Jong-su. However, several other persons – the owner of the property where the incident supposedly happened and Hae-mi’s mother – dispute the tale and conclusively state that no such well ever existed in the village. Jong-su’s desperation to believe her fantasy – his desperation to believe in a world where he is a saviour figure, a knight in shining armour riding forth to save a lost and damaged woman, is particularly telling.

In the same way Hae-mi in their first meeting acts out a pantomime of eating an orange, so too does Jong-su act out his own pantomime – of being a writer, of being a man in love and a saviour of women. This is one reason why he reacts so negatively to Ben: Hae-mi’s relationship with Ben shatters this delusion. Jong-su does not care about Hae-mi as a person – he cares about an idealised portrait of her in his head. When this idealised portrait of the virtuous ingénue is undermined by her behaviour on his farm – drinking, smoking marijuana and dancing in the nude – Jong-su lashes out, condemning the object of his desires as nothing more than a whore.  The intermittent masturbation scenes – which may be initially viewed as somewhat pointless – are demonstrative of the fact that Jong-su’s relationship with Hae-mi is little more than an act of ‘self-love’.

It is clear that ‘burning greenhouses’ is indeed a euphemism for the treatment of women, but it is dubious whether it is an allegory for murder. No hard evidence exists to prove Ben’s status as a serial killer, only innuendo and suspicion. It is clear he uses and discards women emotionally – he is seen with a new girlfriend mere days after Hae-mi’s disappearance. It is in this quick discarding of women when they no longer serve the purpose of men we can see the true meaning of the term ‘burning’.  Whatever is the cause of Hae-mi’s disappearance – murder, suicide or running away – she is ‘burned’ by the two most important males in her life.

Ben simply moves on. He finds that the best way to feed his ‘great hunger’ is to enjoy all the trappings of a luxurious modern life. Jong-su however, cannot accept the consequences of his actions and so crafts a grand narrative in his head – with himself cast as the righteous avenger against a dastardly villain.  Ben not only represents the man who ‘stole’ Hae-Mi from him, but something greater – the societal forces plaguing Jong-su’s life. Ben is modern Korea – the Korea that is in some ways more American and Western than Korean. Jong-su is the underclass left behind by this new society, dealing not only with economic struggle but the weight of history. Consider Jong-su’s proximity to the North Korean border – the weight of Korea’s turbulent history is omnipresent in his life.  Ben is a scapegoat, a lightning rod for all Jong-su’s resentments, and he pays the ultimate price for it – his life.

This is a film that, to pardon the pun, burns itself into your consciousness, but it is perhaps not one that can be entirely classified as ‘enjoyable’. It works like a puzzle, and like most puzzles it is at time frustrating and confusing. However, once you get the pieces to fit and see the full picture, your admiration and appreciation only grows.

So, in the end, what is Burning?  Is it a film about men and their relationship to women, a parable of social class and the weight of history, or just a simple murder mystery and revenge thriller?  Like Schrodinger’s cat, ingeniously referenced by the presence (or non-presence) of Hae-Mi’s cat Boil, it simultaneously exists as all of these things and none of them, and so much more. Several things can be said for certain however – the stifling atmosphere created by Lee Chang-dong’s sublime direction and script and the performances of the three lead actors – Steven Yeun, Yoo Ah-in and Jeon Jong-seo – are worthy of the highest plaudits and praise. Burning is another fine example of the best of Korean cinema, and I highly recommend seeking it out to enjoy for yourself it’s pleasures and mysteries.

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