After months of waiting, I finally had the opportunity to watch Burning, the South Korean film that received universal acclaim since its release back in 2018 (May for South Korea and October for USA). Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, the film is mesmerising to watch and gives the viewer something to think about for a long time. It is the director Lee Chang-dong’s first film in eight years. Right off the bat, here are some elements that distinguish it from other movies.
The Slow Burning Pace
Burning shows no hurry in building up its plot, captivating the viewer in its setting. It also leaves many unanswered questions in the end. Lee Jong-su, the protagonist is an unemployed writer living near the North Korean border (where the residents are annoyed due to propaganda broadcasts). His introverted nature is challenged by Shin Hae-mi, a childhood friend he doesn’t remember. The duo reconnects and Hae-mi leaves for a solo trip to Africa, asking Jong-su to feed her cat named Boiler, which Jong-su never sees in her house.
Burning explores the theme of toxic masculinity and its impact on society.
Jong-su’s feelings for Hae-mi are obstructed by the arrival of Ben, a wealthy and sophisticated playboy. Ben is the perfect guy- polite, minimalistic and very rich (evident from his Porsche as compared to Jong-su’s rusty truck). Yet, the audience feels alienated from him and something about him doesn’t feel right. Jong-su is threatened by his arrival which is completely natural. The trio form an unusual relationship until Hae-mi mysteriously disappears.
The Class Division, Jealousy and Society
A sharp contrast between the two males lives is clearly seen. Jong-su is poor, has no social life and does odd jobs for a living. He lives in a cramped up house alone. His father is in prison on assault charges and he hasn’t seen his mother in years. Jong-su gets anxious when Hae-mi tells him that she is coming to visit him to his home. Unlike the protagonists from other movies, Jong-su is not likeable. He is strange and the audience also begin questioning his decisions as the film progresses.
On the other hand, Ben is lives in a posh apartment of an elite area and has an active social life. He visits bars and discos whereas in the very next scene, Jong-su is shown cleaning his cow-shed. Ben is mysterious and we don’t receive good vibes from him. Jong-su is visibly jealous of him. He is just too perfect and we suspect of a sinister vendetta (especially when he yawns during his meetings with friends) . “He is the Great Gatsby” Jong-su tells Hae-mi. Ben never mentions his job in the film. The class disparity between the two men couldn’t be clearer.
Ben’s perfect life leaves the audience with a sense of uneasiness.
Hae-mi sort of stands somewhere in the middle. Though she comes from a poor background, it doesn’t stop her from enjoying life to the fullest. A turning point for her is when Jong-su asks her “Why do you undress so easily in front of men?”. This shatters her from inside and she loses her only friend. The movie shows the economic turmoil in Asia. Unemployment has also been highlighted multiple times in the film. Jong-su is suffering from writers block and both him and Hae-mi do odd jobs for a living.
The Hidden Meanings
Disappearance is a recurring theme in the movie. Hae-mi on visiting her old locality finds that her house has been broken down and the well she fell in as a child has disappeared. “I wish I could disappear as if I had never existed” she says. By the looks of it, she really means it. Hae-mi inexplicably vanishes later in the film.
Perhaps the most intriguing moment of the entire film is when Ben shares his “hobby” with Jong-su. He metaphorically speaks of burning abandoned greenhouses. The “abandoned greenhouses” are girls who have no family and friends. Their death would be forgotten by everyone as he says “The Korean police don’t care for those sort of things”. He also states that he does it every two months and that he has already decided which one to burn down next.
Hae-mi is carefree,naive and often confused about her relationship with the two male leads.
Jong-su suspects that Hae-mi was murdered by Ben and he hid her body. He meets Ben who is with a new girl, pretending that everything is fine. His calm and polite demeanour irritates the audience. Jong-su finds Hae-mi’s watch and cat (Boiler) in Ben’s house and is convinced of the murder. It is proved that Ben is actually a psychopath who kills women.
The climax of Burning is barely five minutes long. Jong-su calls Ben to a secluded area and stabs him to death. This act of his is shocking and unexpected. He puts Ben’s lifeless body in the Porsche and strips down to dispose the blood off his clothes. The luxury car is then burnt by him indirectly reflecting his hatred for the rich. He starts shivering in the cold, gets back in his truck and drives away. Hae-mi’s fate is never revealed.
By the time the film ends, we are left wondering if Jong-su was an unreliable protagonist. A lot of questions are left unanswered, but it doesn’t matter to the viewer anymore. I was perplexed and confused as the credits started rolling. This ambiguous yet dark ending drops the audience in their own abyss of thoughts.
Burning is easily one of the most thought provoking films I have ever seen. A must watch for everyone!