Against Hollywood Cinema: An Anti-Capitalist Rebuttal of Riordan’s ‘In Defence of Hollywood Cinema’

Culture, Film, Society

Tom Harrison

In this article I do not aim to offend Liam Riordan, nor any other person. Rather, I write this piece to express my feelings towards the debate around the ‘quality of Hollywood cinema’, as I feel many have been bogged down in the question ‘is Hollywood cinema good?’ rather than the far more important question ‘why does Hollywood cinema exist, and what does it do?’.

Liam Riordan’s article In Defence of Hollywood is not ill-conceived, as I too feel shame and despair when confronted by the plethora of cultural critics who construct monoliths – such as ‘the category of Hollywood cinema’ – merely to tear them down with rhetoric. Such ‘intellectuals’, often disciples of Jordan Peterson or of a thoughtless ‘popular’ feminism, invariably decry ‘mainstream media’ simply as bad. On this point I agree with Riordan, these uncomplicated critics have nothing to offer in terms of nuanced critique.

But such arguments, loosely described within Riordan’s article, must not be engaged with uncritically. At the risk of betraying myself as a reader of Foucault – a charge I may indeed be guilty of – the very notion of a Hollywood cannot remain unchallenged if it is to be honestly and critically discussed. Rather unfortunately, Riordan met his opponent on their own terms: he defended ‘Hollywood’. He defended, as I shall argue, the indefensible. He defended a system of production that is designed to subjugate the worker and prolong work itself, all in order to expand and enforce capitalism.

The ‘Hollywood’ that Riordan engages with does not exist. There is no unified force, no table of executives, no board of directors that creates films. But to say there is no ‘Hollywood’ is not to say there is no ‘culture industry’. Rather, the term Hollywood does not adequately or accurately describe the late capitalist emergence of manufactured culture; manufactured by and for those under capitalism in order to remedy the cultural chaos caused by, among other factors: the death of God, the dissolution of any precapitalistic restraints, and social and technological differentiation and specialisation. Such a system, as described by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, differentiates itself from the liberal notion of ‘Hollywood’, as the ‘culture industry’ is not a collection of production studios, but rather, production of culture itself. It is not conscious, nor reducible to the individual. ‘Hollywood’ is controlled by men, the ‘culture industry’ is controlled by the leviathan of late Capitalism: reducing all in its attempt to expand production.

The product of this system is the production of films for the purpose of ‘mass deception’ and uniform indoctrination, according to Adorno. Riordan describes a similar system himself:

“Hollywood is an industry, just like any other. It works on supply and demand: the smaller “sub-­studios” like Focus Features cater to an audience that wants smaller, more emotional, perhaps more specific experiences, where the bigger studios cater to a wider audience, as well as to those who want to see something that necessitates a huge budget.”

All tastes are catered for within the ‘culture industry’, but not because of supply and demand. To quote Adorno, “Something is provided for all so none may escape” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2016, p.123). Riordan is correct in claiming that the totality of Hollywood is due to its capitalist structure, but wrong in assuming there is ‘demand’. The ‘culture industry’ is not driven by demand, there is no demand for the specific entertainment offered by the ‘culture industry’. No worker needs Toy Story, John Wick, or Love, Actually like they need food, medicine, shelter, etc. The worker seeks amusement, a distraction from the hell of late capitalism, and the culture industry provides it. “Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2016, p.137). The worker seeks distraction from his existence and turns to amusement rather than confronting his radical freedom and thus ability to change. He seeks a tranquiliser and the culture industry provides.

In doing so, the ‘culture industry’ no longer pretends to make art: “the people at the top are no longer concerned with concealing their monopoly … They call themselves industries; and when their directors’ incomes are published, any doubt of the social utility of their product is removed” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2016, p.121). The ‘culture industry’ is merely an extension of the mechanics of late capitalism, which perpetuates its workforce and sustains it, as painkillers sustain a crippled man.

This claim may appear to be a wild Marxist conspiracy, written by a wild Marxist. Such an accusation is deeply offensive to me, as I am not a wrenched Marxist but an Anti-capitalist.

I couldn’t possibly hope to achieve a total description and deconstruction of the ‘culture industry’ within this piece, so instead I shall turn the reader’s attention to Chapter 5 of Dialectic of Enlightenment, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.

Riordan’s piece came to the wrong conclusions, due to its being a response to the most pathetic and thoughtless cultural criticism imaginable. To say ‘the culture industry is incapable of producing art due to the profit motive eclipsing all intentions of meaningful expression and artistic creation’ is a fairly compelling argument (expanded on by Adorno) but to reduce this to the level of ‘Hollywood = Bad!’, well, on that I do sympathise with Riordan. It is a distraction from real analysis and inquiry.

This piece did not fully address whether Hollywood can produce good films or ‘art’, simply because such nebulous questions are almost impossible to answer and doing so would be tedious. Any definition of art is likely inadequate, as is any category of ‘good’. Rather, I expressed my feelings towards the ‘culture industry’ as an answer to the unspoken question, “what does ‘Hollywood’ do?”, hopefully correcting the otherwise pointless course of the dialogues surrounding ‘art and Hollywood’. The quality of the cinema the ‘culture industry’ produces should be as irrelevant to the consumer as it is to the producer, for ‘quality’ is merely a method of differentiation within a totalising system, which attempts to momentarily unify the schizophrenia of late capitalist signs within a product.

Capernaum And The Grinding Hell of Poverty

Film

Christopher Nebe

When considering the vast array of foreign language cinema released every year, it is difficult for newcomers to find and watch some of the incredible films released. It is even more difficult to see these films when they are overshadowed by those that dominate the spotlight. With Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma winning a plethora of awards, including Best Foreign Picture at the Oscars and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters winning the Palme d’Or, the other nominees in these categories, and those films unfortunate enough to not receive any such recognition, are buried beneath the mountains of praise bestowed upon Roma and Shoplifters.

Capernaum, a Lebanese film directed by Nadine Labaki that was nominated for both the Palme d’Or and the Best Foreign Film Oscar, deserved more attention then it got. The film itself is a powerful character study of the life of twelve-year-old slum boy Zain El Hajj (Zain Al Rafeea), in Lebanon’s capital of Beirut. The film shows parts of Zain’s life in flashback, chronicling his hardships, his eventual imprisonment and his attempt to sue his own parents for neglect. The film has a powerful message at its core, one that wants and needs to be heard.

Capernaum excels in creating a disgusting, upsetting world. The slums of Beirut feel gritty, filthy, and most importantly: lived in. This is in stark contrast to other modern films, in which people roll in the dust and come back up freshly laundered – here the grime covering the characters feels authentic. Zain is only ever truly clean a few times in the film – the breaks in between bathing are so long that Zain becomes a small ball of sweat, dirt and tears. The sound design fills the world with vibrancy and authenticity. Every moment feels as if it is really happening – even moments as innocuous as Zain and his siblings selling juice on the street are set against the backdrop of the hustle and bustle of a teaming, unwieldy metropolis. Sounds emitted by cars, passers-by, and all manner of unknown sources come together to remove all artificiality and add a diegetic layer to the film. The score is not as impressive as the film’s sound design. Mouzanar’s score is rather understated, disappointingly only coming into play in a major way a handful of times. These times, though, are some of the most emotional of the film. An emotional swelling of the score enhances the moment and brings home the vast tragedy unfolding before us. And when these moments give way to silence, the effect is striking.

Christopher Aoun’s cinematography mostly focuses on medium hand-held shots. Through this, Aoun brings the viewer right into the space of the film, lending it a documentary-like realism. And the film does feel real, almost as if the viewer is peering voyeuristically into this poor boy’s life. Long shots hold onto Zain as he explores his dilapidated environment – we see him walking along the side of the road with Yonas, or  watching the theme park’s fading Ferris Wheel with longing. The film isn’t afraid of these personal, intimate moments. The focus of the viewer is entirely centred on Zain and the emotional weight of what he has to deal with. These shots create an entrancing connection between the viewer and the visuals that builds empathy for Zain and his situation.

Al Rafeea does an incredible job, with the film centring on his personal experience, Rahil’s tangential arc and the flashbacks to the trial. Zain is the heart and soul of the film that the viewer connects to. Whenever the film takes a moment to show Zain shed a few tears, the audience’s heart hurts for this child and his struggles. The film is at its best when developing Zain’s struggle and how chaotic and hellish his life is. The best relationships in the film also revolve around Zain. The dynamic between Zain and his sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) is sweet and helps the viewer understand Zain’s motivations for running away. Zain and the baby Yonas provide an intensely understandable struggle that is both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch as Zain and Yonas fight to survive.

One of the film’s biggest drawbacks, however, is the narrative structure and second act of the film. The investment I specifically had was in Zain. When the film undercut his future actions by opening with the court case, it took the impact out of his eventual arrest because it was not only expected, but incredibly predictable as to who he was going to stab. The film also struggles whenever it isn’t following Zain, primarily in the second act which heavily follows Rahil’s character as she attempts to get herself identification papers. While this is important for the message of the film, it isn’t nearly as interesting or impactful as Zain’s later situation where he solely cares for Yonas. It is this section where Zain cares for Yonas that has the most emotional impact and connection to the film’s overarching message.

The film’s central theme is exhibited by the name of the film itself: “Chaos.” Through its heartbreaking case study, it aims to paint a portrait of a chaotic world, one marred by the unrelenting and uncaring indignities of poverty. Zain’s attempt to sue his parents for neglect serves as an allegory for the poor and underprivileged speaking against an oppressive system: “Imagine having to feed your child sugar and water, because you have nothing else to give them.” The film doesn’t vilify any specific person; rather, characters such as Zain’s parents are given a platform to explain their own situations to remind the audience that they too are capable of suffering.

It also showcases how in this situation the neglect is seemingly incomprehensible in scale: early on, one of Zain’s infant siblings is pictured with a chain around their ankle to prevent them from straying too far from their space whilst the parental figures grind drugs into fine powder. Later, while Zain cares for Yonas, he too finds the need to take a rope and tie it around Yonas’ ankle, just as his parents had done before.  This serves as a commentary on the intergenerational violence that poverty wreaks on a soicety. Those in extreme poverty neglect their children out of the pure necessity of needing money to feed themselves and said children. It’s Zain’s small chaotic life and those around him that is the synecdoche for the chaos of the entire world.

The film also strengthens this disparity with the recurring symbolism of identification papers, the physical representation of existing. Characters are often maligned for their lack of papers, symbolising their separation from the people: they are ‘undeserving’ and ‘unqualified’ for identification papers. The characters are always in limbo, unable to obtain a better or more secure life due to their lack of identification, stuck in a place where they are desperately trying to scrape together enough money to live.

An issue with the film’s central themes, however, is the conflicting nature of Zain’s lawsuit and the portrayal of Rahil and Yonas’ reunion. The film condemns Zain’s parents’ neglectful actions despite showing that there are reasons for their choices and motivations that place blame on the wider social system rather than themselves. It still portrays Zain’s parents as cruel, through their language and their contemptable actions. This is in direct juxtaposition to Rahil, another poor, immigrant mother without identification papers forced to leave her son Yonas in his basket in the toilet of her workplace as she works. She is barely able to afford food and rent, steals cake for Yonas’ first birthday, and intentionally leaves her infant with a young vagrant child. Despite this, she is seen as sympathetic and their reunion is portrayed as a happy and beautiful moment. Though the film unintentionally undercuts the impact of Zain’s parents’ actions and their narrative purpose, it actively asks the viewer to buy into the chaotic world of the film. By developing the idea of chaos by portraying a similar situation as positive, it muddles the waters as to whether it is always morally wrong to bring a child up into a world of poverty.

Capernaum showcases the pervasive injustice faced by poverty-stricken people. Labaki’s portrayal of a chaotic world is both powerful and realistic, a reflection of the lives of not just those in Beirut’s slums, but of all who live in injustice. This is a film with a powerful voice that demands to be heard, a heartfelt synecdoche for the unrelenting and unfair chaos of our world that I recommend everyone watch.

Parasite – Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or Winning Return as the King of Korean Cinema

Film

Ben O’Dwyer

Article Note: Minor Spoilers

After a 10 year stint in the “Hollywood System”, as he described it, with the English language features Snowpiercer and Okja, Bong Joon-ho returns to his Korean roots with his Palme D’or and Sydney Film Festival winning social satire Parasite. Perhaps one of the more deserving Palme D’or winners that have come out of the Cannes Film Festival in recent years, Parasite deserves the critically high praise it is currently receiving prior to its official June 27thAustralian release. It also marks Korea’s first Palme D’or win, achieved on the 100 year anniversary of the country’s cinema. The effort to force the Korean cinema into the mainstream has been heavily aided in recent years with films like Bong’s Parasite, Lee Chang-dong’s brilliant Burning, a Palme D’or contender from last year, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. Parasite arguably stands at the top of this list of films, with Bong delivering his most mature work yet.

Without delving into heavy spoilers (which Director Bong advised us against during his Q&A), the film revolves around the low-class Kim family’s involvement with the wealthy Park family, and a string of incidents that occur as a result. The film begins with the Kim family folding pizza boxes (the family’s primary source of income), eating dinners from local convenience stores, and searching every inch of their basement-home for a Wi-Fi signal. Though from the start it is clear that this family isn’t your average low-class family, as is the case in all of Bong’s films. The Director mentioned in the Q&A that the dialogue that the Kim family use with each other is extremely strange; they swear and use phrases that wouldn’t normally be seen in a typical Korean family, something that easily goes over the heads of non-Korean speaking viewers. As such, their cunning as con-artists soon becomes apparent as they one-by-one infiltrate the Park family’s circle, replacing their tutors, their maid, and their personal driver under different aliases. As the centre of the film, the Park family home is almost a character in itself with its elaborate set design, setting up many tense and comedic situations throughout the film.

Contrasting these two families in this expansive home, Bong explores the metaphorical and physical ‘horrors’ of class division. He reunites with the internationally famous and ever-charming Song Kang-ho (who led his earlier films Memories of Murder and The Host) who plays Kim Ki-taek, the patriarch of the Kim family. It also features performances by Lee Sun-keen as Park Dong-ik, the patriarch of the Park family, among other names such as Cho Yeong-jeong, as Park Yeon-kyo, and Choi Woo-shik, as Kim Ki-woo. As with most of Bong’s ensemble films, there wasn’t a weak performance to be found, with even the minor characters such as the son and daughter from the Park family playing their roles fantastically. Much can be said about Song Kang-ho; charming in every role he plays, able to convey and evoke a range of emotions and audience responses through simple line deliveries and facial movements, and a reason for watching any film he appears in. Though similar to roles he’s played before, in that he plays the ‘everyman’ (Memories of Murder’s Park Doo-man for example) similar to Jimmy Stewart in classic Hollywood, he visually and characteristically appears much more mature in the role of Kim Ki-taek. Speaking more on the performances themselves, in the Director’s Q&A after the film Bong mentioned that though many of the characters commit horrendous and ‘bad’ actions, none of them are wholly bad, as in the words of the director “those people just don’t exist”. He went on to mention that they exist in a “grey area” between good and bad, and naturally float between the two throughout the duration of the film. This tittering between zones results in a natural and un-forced tonal shift towards the end of the film that expertly blends with the rest of the content within the film, despite being an extreme and shocking turn.

As with all of his films, Bong Joon-ho blends genres (which will be discussed later) to showcase a primary theme or issue. He mentioned during the Q&A that he likes to make films about “weaker” groups of people, meaning people who don’t possess the voice of the majority. This is explicitly evident in Okja, with its focus on animal rights, environmentalism and capitalism, and in Snowpiercer with its class struggle plot. However, more subtle themes are pushed across in his earlier films, including Memories of Murder’s and The Host’s struggle with post-war national identity. Parasite sets its sights on class struggle, similar to Snowpiercer¸ though it doesn’t explicitly ponder this primary theme within the elements of the film. It produces a coherent reading. The openly ‘metaphorical’ nature of many things in the film (the rock primarily) are nonchalantly thrown at the audience within seconds of their appearance. Thematically Parasite exists closely to his first English-language film Snowpiercer in that they both focus on class struggle, though this appears more comically in Snowpiercer’s science fiction setting and more maturely in Parasite’s realistic family drama. Another similarity is in the physical structure of the films, primarily in terms of set design and cinematography. Snowpiercer focuses on the lower-class denizens of the tail section of the train moving towards the high-class front section of the train, a horizontally positioned hierarchy. Parasite, on the other hand, focuses on verticals. The Kim family live in a low set basement-like home while the Park family live in a luxurious and architecturally elevated hilltop mansion. Even when the families interact with each other the Kim family always exists on a lower plane to the Park family (Examples being when they are positioned under the table and in the basement).

Bong Joon-ho has always been an ‘unconventional’ filmmaker, with his films not entirely fitting into any specific genre. Take The Host, which on the surface appears as a monster film, but breaks many cinematic conventions related to the genre; the monster appears within the first few scenes and is clearly visible throughout the film. More than this, it touches heavily on themes of South Korean national identity and the dominance of the United States in the South post the Korean War. All of his previous and subsequent films also focus on ‘greater’ themes, with Parasite being no different. Bong’s injection of subtle and often black comedy into these violent scenarios (Barking Dogs Never Bite’s dog hanging scene and Memories of Murder’s infamous drop-kicking come to mind) adds to his films’ unclassifiable nature. There is a delicate balance between violent, heavy elements and comedic components that work in cementing Bong Joon-ho film’s as undeniably Bong Joon-ho, rather than conforming to a specific set of genre conventions. If we were to classify Parasite it would come under such genre umbrellas as comedy, family drama, thriller, and even tragedy, but it remains a wholly original affair. Parasite in this sense is perhaps his most mature work, in that it allows audiences to throw away the aforementioned genres and settle for the label of ‘A Bong Joon-ho’ film. A prime example of this appears at around the mid-point of Parasite (which won’t be spoiled) and involves a morally horrific event taking place under very comedic circumstances. The result had the entire State Theatre in an uproar of laughter.

A highpoint of the Q&A was towards the end when the director revealed he was working on three more films, two Korean and one English. One of the three is a set to be a Korean horror movie set in Seoul, which was the extent of information he could reveal. With Parasite’s triumphant success at Cannes, the Sydney Film Festival and throughout its South Korean cinema run, Bong retakes his crown as the king of Korean cinema.

In Defence of Hollywood Cinema

Film

Liam Riordan

There is something seemingly quite satisfying in not just disliking, or not preferring, but actively hating contemporary Hollywood cinema. I speak from personal experience here, but a wide personal experience. Between colleagues, friends, family members, professional and amateur writers in both print and on the internet, and even professional practitioners of cinema itself, both Hollywood and otherwise; in all of these groups and more, you won’t struggle to find countless arguments that Hollywood cinema is “soulless” or “empty” or “shallow,” or any other such descriptors.

To clarify, I completely understand this argument. Screen media is perhaps the medium that most blurs the line between art and commerce. All mediums need to make some money to survive, and some of them do considerable business, but you won’t find a novel or a ballet performance making a billion dollars on its first weekend out of the gate.

The kind of money that films make, and need in order to be made, is difficult to ignore, and this is especially true of blockbuster Hollywood cinema. When a film costs multiple hundreds of millions of dollars to make, it desperately needs to make much, much more. This is where my views align with those who disdain Hollywood cinema. These massive investments are a huge risk for studios, and to minimise that risk, the films themselves are made in a way that the studios conceive of as “safe.” This leads to the kind of entertainment that people often say feels like it is “made by a committee.” The fear of alienating any of the potential audience means that interesting, bold filmmaking choices are not taken. This, combined with the practice of looking to former successes for some kind of (in truth non­existent) formula, is the primary reason why film after film feels exactly the same as everything else coming into theatres.

Indeed, this is frustrating. It is also condescending, that studios favour placating everyone over actually pleasing and exciting a slightly smaller audience.

This is all to say, I understand where the vitriol comes from.

However, I still believe it is misguided.

For one, the common understanding of “Hollywood” is  smaller and more restrictive than the reality of Hollywood. Hollywood is largely to blame for this. It is deeply interested in the idea of itself as evidenced by the inward gaze of greats like Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain, to more recent masterpieces like Mulholland Drive and LA Confidential. But it’s also very self­-critical. The great irony of films such as these is that they are exceptional, but they are exceptional in that they clearly express how vacuous and vile the Hollywood behind their construction actually is. No wonder we don’t know how to feel about the place.

But the reality of Hollywood cinema is, like many things, so much more than the surface reveals. Massive Hollywood studios commonly run much smaller subsidiaries that make the kinds of films that are often mistaken for “indies.” One such example is Universal Pictures, who have given us enormous titles such as the Jurassic Park/World series and the Fast and Furious Films. They own Focus Features, who made the beloved, infinitely more intimate films Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to name just two.

Hollywood is an industry, just like any other. It works on supply and demand: the smaller “sub-­studios” like Focus Features cater to an audience that wants smaller, more emotional, perhaps more specific experiences, where the bigger studios cater to a wider audience, as well as to those who want to see something that necessitates a huge budget. Part of the magic of cinema is that visionaries like Sofia Coppola can invent a new kind of quietness, a previously unfelt level of cinematic voyeurism, and in the very same city, other visionaries like Steven Spielberg can make dinosaurs come to life.

These innovations require very different investments, and those investments require very different returns. Hollywood is a much broader idea than I think a lot of us give it credit for. That’s not to under­play the pretty pervasive consumerist attitudes of the blockbuster end of Hollywood’s spectrum; rather, it’s simply to suggest that there’s more to tinseltown than endless sequels and reboots. You don’t even have to know where to look, but it’s worth knowing that often, you’re already looking at it.

Now, the breadth of Hollywood aside: blockbuster films are not all, and are not inherently, soulless, shallow, or plain bad. There is a pretty toxic double standard in the world of entertainment and film; the fact that those who don’t really enjoy “arthouse” cinema, or niche, foreign or independent cinema, are pretty happy to let those who do, simply enjoy it. Filmgoers who don’t attend festivals or who don’t like to venture too far from what they know, aren’t very likely to criticise those who do.

And yet, this acceptance is almost non­existent when the tables are turned. Big-­budget action and adventure films, especially franchise titles, are almost universally relegated to “just entertainment” (which is a broken phrase to unpack at another time) even by those who really enjoy them, and judging by the numbers, that’s a lot of us. But just like any other genre or type of film, there are exceptional entries just as there are lacklustre ones. There are as many (logically, many more) films from the revered French cinema that are boring, self-­involved, or cheap, as there are shimmering masterpieces. The same, I believe, applies to blockbuster films.

Jaws, the very namesake for the blockbuster, is one such example. It is thrilling, absolutely exemplary of the craft of filmmaking, and a satisfying story with a well­constructed character arc at its centre. Mission Impossible: Fallout is another example of nail­biting action direction, and features incredible fight choreography and some stunning (in the truest sense of the word) re­thinking of what constitutes vehicle chase sequences.

Just as there are some things that blockbusters cannot, by definition, do, there are things that only they can do. Discovering new, subtle character acting talent in a tentpole action franchise is unlikely: but seeing an entire suburb fold in on itself a la Inception is just as unlikely in a four ­million dollar indie.

Yes, films like these cost a lot of money and need to hedge their bets a little bit to make their money back. But that doesn’t automatically disqualify them from being genuinely great. All films are a bet, and it takes bravery and true love of the form to put legitimate quality and passion above financial concerns.

That is what all great films do, regardless of their cost, their country of origin, or their production backgrounds, or the talent behind them. Love, inspiration and genuine craftsmanship, wherever you can find them, are rare and beautiful, and deserve your appreciation.

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning: A Momentous Achievement

Culture, Film

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.