Burning (2018)

Directed by Chang-dong Lee

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Burning is a wonderful, tense character study.  It’s a thriller in some sense, though not initially.  Such genre construction only develops over time from Jong-su’s (Ah-In Yoo) obsession with and dissatisfaction over losing a girl he sleeps with, Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon).  She’s a classmate from middle school whom he once called ugly.  He doesn’t remember this, but she brings it up soon after they meet and shortly before they sleep together, almost as if she only wants to prove that he was wrong.

While Hae-mi travels to Kenya, she asks Jong-su to stop by and feed her cat.  When he comes over, on multiple occasions, he pleasures himself though doesn’t seem to express any real pleasure while doing it.  Instead it’s a different type of release, something he needs to do, perhaps, to avoid imploding.

Jong-su has his own expectations when Hae-mi returns, however when she shows up with a new, handsome friend named Ben (The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun), Jong-su immediately feels threatened.

Ben is everything Jong-su is not.  He’s wealthy, employed and, most importantly, charismatic.  It’s these charms which director Chang-dong Lee does a great job of making sinister.  It’s not that Ben is or isn’t up to something devious, only that Jong-su sees evil behind his charisma.  It’s a purposeful facade masking his true intentions, should Jong-su be believed.

Around halfway into the story Hae-mi will disappear without a trace.  Her abrupt departure from the story is a mystery, though it’s set up on several occasions when she alludes to one day hoping to vanish into thin air, as if she never existed.

Jong-su believes something has happened to her, rather than her leaving on her own accord, because of a call he received from her phone while it sounds like she is running away from someone.  When Jong-su catches up to Ben, who up until this point has been connected at the hip with Hae-mi, he is with a new woman.  To Jong-su, and to the audience as well, this acts as circumstantial evidence to his hand in Jong-su’s disappearance.

Burning is *ahem* a slow burn.  It’s a careful observation of one young man struggling with just about everything in his life.  His father, whom he claims to hate, is being sent to prison, and his mother hasn’t talked to him since she ran away sixteen years earlier.  Jong-su appears to have no friends, and it’s not hard to imagine that Hae-mi was the first woman he’s slept with.

What we learn about Jong-su suggests he’s isolated and craves meaning in the form of companionship.  To call Hae-mi a friend, let alone a love interest, would be going a step too far because he barely knew her by the time she returned with Ben.  This shouldn’t be as much of an intrusion in Jong-su’s life as it is.

The second half of the film will make you question if Jong-su was murdered or simply ran away on her own volition.  It seems too much of a coincidence that she would speak of disappearing into thin air and then actually disappear into thin air at the whim of someone else’s actions.  Instead, to me, it seems she probably decided to up and leave and start over somewhere new.  We and Jong-su truly, barely know her no matter what Jong-su would have you believe.

Several people allude to the idea that Hae-mi is unreliable.  Her stories from the past (including falling down a well) may be lies, and this kind of unreliability suggests she might be flighty as well, giving weight to the idea that she just ran away.

Other evidence, though always circumstantial, suggests something more sinister.  This mostly has to do with Ben’s charisma.  Depending on how it’s contextualized, he is either just the nicest man around or he’s Patrick Bateman.  Because we see this through Jong-su’s eyes, we see him as Patrick Bateman, without a doubt Hae-mi’s killer.

He also has in his home Jong-su’s watch and her cat, though again this hardly suggests he’s a killer.  It’s only because we’re introduced to this information so late in the story, after Jong-su’s suspicion has begun to fester, that we read into it as evidence.

Burning is a fantastic movie, at least the type I consider fantastic.  It’s certainly open to interpretation, and I’m guessing that were I to rewatch this I might come away with a different perspective.  My guess is that certain scenes are directed in a way to contradict others before and after.  The point is that there is no single truth, only versions of the truth we tell ourselves and that we need to hear.

This is Jong-su’s story, and he needs to believe that Hae-mi was taken away from him.  It makes more sense that she was forcibly removed from his life than that she left him behind.  He obsesses over her and imbues her with a certain kind of value that correlates directly with his own self-esteem.  Having her leave as quickly as she does leaves a hole in his life, but to believe she was kidnapped or killed leaves that hole paved over.  It offers some meaning and gives him a mission to occupy his time.

Looking at Jong-su’s and Hae-mi’s time together, there is little to convey that they had any kind of true, meaningful connection.  They reconnect after he didn’t even recognize her.  Then she pulled him into her orbit, then convinced him to watch her cat while she’s gone (almost as if all she needed was a free cat-sitter), then slept with him, then introduced them to Ben.  When she’s gone Jong-su masturbates in her apartment, and this is a deliberate choice to show not once but twice.  His feelings for her are little more than lust.  Later we see Jong-su when she’s stoned and dancing topless in front of the setting sun.  She will end the performance by crying silently to herself, then falling asleep on the couch.  When she wakes up to leave in Ben’s car, Jong-su calls her a whore.

And that’s the last time he sees her.

Later, near the end of the film, Jong-su will imagine himself in Hae-mi’s apartment, lying on the bed with her pleasuring him.  It’s then revealed that this is only a fantasy, predictably, but that he is lying on her bed in that exact position.  At this point he is pretty sure something has happened to her, and the only thing he can think of involves sexualizing her.  That’s because to him that’s the only value she provides.

Hae-mi, then, isn’t a real person to him.  She is someone from whom he gleams self-importance.  He idolizes, objectifies and then belittles her.  The common theme is that he never treats her as a person, never looks at her on a level playing field.  She is either above or below him.  He never really sees who she actually is.

Jong-su’s mission to save or avenge her, then, is a product of his own insecurity and need.  He will obsess over her and thus Ben as well, much as the Nick Nolte character in Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1997).  That movie is billed as a murder mystery, but the act one death which sets the plot in motion is revealed to be nothing more than an accident. It’s Wade Whitehouse’s (Nolte) desperate need to believe it was a murder that drives the action forward.  He creates drama where there is none because in that drama he finds a purpose.

Burning is very much about purpose.

Ben will explain to Jong-su how he sets abandoned greenhouses on fire every two months or so.  Watching them burn and disappear into nothing, without consequences, helps him feel truly alive.  It’s something he feels deep into his bones.

After Hae-mi disappears, Ben will claim to have burned another greenhouse.  Jong-su, however, says he has checked all the greenhouses, and none of them have burned.  Between Ben’s purposefully mysterious prose and the story he told, Jong-su (and the audience) will believe this means Ben’s burned greenhouse is symbolic of having killed Hae-mi.

I love this movie so much.  It’s dark and uncomfortable and incredibly tense.  It’s not afraid to keep the protagonist in check, and it similarly makes each of the three leads feel selfish and self-destructive.

I believe I’ve established Jong-su’s own delusion and selfishness, so let’s move on to Hae-mi and Ben.

Hae-mi’s only real shortcoming is her shortsightedness, melancholy and self-centeredness.  She has no malicious intent (though I guess neither does Jong-su, at least consciously), but she lavishes Jong-su with intention and then cuts it all off.  She seems to use him for what she can and then move onto someone else who provides more.

Ben has everything going for him, but just as well he seems to revel in having control over other people.  When he brings Hae-mi to meet his other friends, she sticks out in multiple ways.  She will tell them her stories from traveling in Kenya while Ben smiles somewhat tiredly at her, though she doesn’t notice.  Later there will be a scene mirroring this one in which Jong-su watches Ben yawn while his new gal tells a similar type of story to all of his wealthy friends, about her travel stories from China.

Ben brings in a new girl, it seems, as if she is a pet.  He introduces them to his friends, then she’s on her way.  Based on the watch Jong-su finds in his apartment, next to a bracelet with another girl’s name on it, it seems as though Ben collects and then discards women like trophies.

So these are three characters at the center of this, though again we see this all through Jong-su’s eyes (save for a single scene), so who knows where the truth lies or if there’s even any truth at all.

From what I gather, should we trust what we see onscreen, each character struggles to find meaning (some more overtly than others), and in that struggle they inadvertently cause pain to those around them (again some more than others).  The film’s final beat, a big decision made by Jong-su, will be the most extreme example of this inflicted pain.

It’s actually quite interesting, more and more the more I think about it.

We see Jong-su find Hae-mi’s pink watch (and cat) at Ben’s apartment.  To him this is evidence that he had a hand in Hae-mi’s disappearance, and this is a fairly common scene in a thriller or detective story.  We then expect Ben’s villainy to suddenly crystallize (since the mystery would seem to be gone), but that doesn’t happen.

Instead of Ben sneaking up on Jong-su and intimidating him, he goes outside to look for the cat which has scurried away.  Jong-su then quietly goes out and finds the cat.  Then he sticks around for dinner.  Then he leaves, with Ben asking why he can’t stay around for a bit longer.

Ben’s behavior, including f*ckin’ yawning, goes against everything we expect for someone guilty of the crime Jong-su thinks he’s guilty of.

Later we will take what seem to be detours from this plot.  Jong-su meets his mom at a coffee shop for the first time in sixteen years, then he imagines himself in bed with Hae-mi, and then we see him in Hae-mi’s apartment, typing away furiously on the computer.  He’s an aspiring writer, whom people on several occasions ask pointedly about what he’s writing, and it seems he has finally found his story.

It’s only after that when we get the last scene in which (SPOILER) Jong-su stabs and kills Ben.

So what I find interesting in all of this is that we don’t lead directly from the ‘evidence’ to the punishment.  Instead we see Jong-su stare at the ‘evidence,’ then return to his life in which he remains quite lonely, and only then do we see him kill Ben, without ever seeing him make the decision to do so.

In that final scene, most of which is filmed in an impressive single take, we start on Ben, smoking a cigarette casually by his Porsche.  If he’s guilty of anything he doesn’t show it.

Jong-su then arrives in his dirty old pick up, and Ben asks him where Hae-mi is, since Jong-su apparently told Ben that he would come see him with Hae-mi.  Ben’s surprise that she’s not there feels quite genuine, again suggesting that he had nothing to do with her disappearance.

At this point, however, Jong-su has already decided to kill Ben, and he does so quickly, almost without thinking.  We never see him make this decision, and it’s as surprising to us as it is to Ben.  For the first time in the film we see Jong-su from someone else’s point of view, and what we see is a disturbed young man.

Damn this is such a great movie.

So my final takeaway, because this is so long, and I doubt anyone will actually read this, is that Burning is a story about people trying to find meaning in their own lives but not knowing how to do it.  We see how a desperate search for meaning can lead some astray, though Jong-su’s story is an extreme example of this.

In more subtle ways, the search for meaning often provides moments of elation but in the meantime leaves inevitable low points in which you feel unfulfilled.  Ben is wealthy and free to travel as he pleases, but in one moment it seems we’ve punched through his armor, and we can see the dissatisfaction underneath.  No matter how wealthy he is or how lavish his apartment, it seems a lonely place when he’s alone.  And for that matter we almost always see Ben with company, whether an ostensible romantic interest or a large group of friends.  He needs to be surrounded by people to feel alive.  Also the burning greenhouses thing.

Jong-su has learned how to live alone, and so he’s better suited for it than Ben, but glimpsing affection from another person makes him crazy for it.  He dumps all his value into Hae-mi, and even when he seems to be writing a story in the end, he does it in her apartment and surely finds inspiration in her departure.  Everything that means anything to him has to do with Hae-mi.

Finally there’s Hae-mi, a lost soul.  She is made to seem broke, to have no friends (multiple people speak ill of her to Jong-su) and to seek nothing more than a death-like disappearance from the world, which she ultimately receives.

She is sandwiched between two men who use her in their own ways.  One revels in the authority he holds over her, at least based on my reading, and doesn’t fret over her when she’s gone, and the other calls her a whore.

This isn’t exactly an optimistic movie, but it has a ton of layers and is an incredibly captivating viewing experience… one of the best of the year.

Up Next: Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), High Sierra (1941)

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