There were many versions of this article. When I began writing about one aspect of this film and thought I was certain, the thought redefined itself, and I found myself rewriting. And yet it happened again, and again…
That’s what’s so special about this film: it provides just enough information to imply the circumstances and stakes involved. It forces the viewer to read between the lines to discover the answers themselves. It’s a film that establishes the cinematic experience in the mind of the spectator, the way the best kinds of films do.
Not too many Americans will be familiar with Lee Chang-dong’s work, and it’s hard to be when he’s often overshadowed by fellow big Korean auteurs such as Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. However, South Korea’s former minister of Culture, former novelist, and now patient-silent poet has resurfaced with his first film in eight years.
A psychological thriller dressed as a searing mystery, Burning is loosely based off the 1992 New Yorker short story by Haruki Murakami titled “Barn Burning.” Displaying elements from both Hitchcock and The Great Gatsby, the film follows a poor farm worker, Jong-su, who was born into the unfortunate lifestyle he now presides. He claims to be a writer, yet his father is incarcerated and his mother left their family at a young age, leaving it up to him to take care of the family farm. When he one day comes across Hae-mi, a girl who claims to be a former classmate, they quickly befriend each other (almost too friendly), and she asks him to watch her cat for a short while during her spirit trip to Africa.
Upon accepting the favor, he refills the cat’s food and water and cleans its litter box, however, never actually sees any sign of the cat, save for a few cat droppings. When Hae-mi comes back with a more sophisticated, western, and clearly wealthier man named Ben (an excellent Steven Yeun), Jong-su’s immediately put off, but finds himself spending more time with them in an effort to be closer to Hae-mi, or yet, relish in jealousy of Ben’s leisurely life. However, only when Hae-mi mysteriously disappears does Jong-su become suspicious of her new suitor.
The film bears traces of Haneke’s Cache, offering up more questions than answers. Also, similarly to Caché, there are many versions to this film – each person will perceive this film differently. Every question that is offered up can somehow be read in a different way. Lee Chang-dong treats answers as if they are not his to give, but rather lets the ebb and flow narrative brim with allegorical possibilities, leading to a cathartic climax that’ll stick with you long after the credits roll.
By following the love triangle, the film compares two very different South Koreas: where Jong-su is at his lowest in terms of social and economic position, Ben is at its highest, where he speeds around in a Porsche, lives in Seoul’s most expensive district, and claims to live a life of arson by burning greenhouses without having to face any consequences. “The police simply don’t pay attention to those things,” Ben states. That’s how well-off he is. And it’s at this point where, what we first see as a narrative plot device, then transforms itself into an outlet that allows the film to explore its plot’s deeper cultural implications.
And that’s when our protagonist begins to stalk Ben, but I’ll stop with the summary of the plot here, because that’s when the film truly begins. As Jong-Su investigates, we begin to see his disdain and craving for the type of lifestyle Ben leads. Jong-su’s impassivity is a defense mechanism, holding suppressed familial drama, financial woes, and heartbreak at bay. Whereas Ben is ever in the present, living a life without repercussions and dating whomever girl he sees.
So, what makes the film so special is not necessarily what it shows, but what it doesn’t show. We only see the surface, but what leads to the conflict between the two men is the urge for Jong-su to lead the type of free life that Ben so rightfully takes for granted. However, maybe he doesn’t take it for granted, maybe he proudly soaks in the carelessness of his lifestyle, only turning to arson to satiate him. When Ben claims he’ll burn down a greenhouse somewhere near Jong-su’s home, Jong-su searches endlessly for the burnt greenhouse unable to find it, only to discover that their love interest is the one that disappeared.
However, is it proven? Is Ben truly guilty? Or is it just our minds automatically drawing conclusions? Why is it that Ben’s type of behavior and lifestyle are the things that trigger our minds thinking so? Why is his type of behavior rewarded? Ben is the one who openly claims to lead a life of crime, yet Jong-su is the one suspiciously looked at by the cops when he loiters in his van outside Ben’s apartment. Are our minds specifically wired that way?
We all crave what we don’t want. We all dream of living a life without having to face the fallout. It’s just that in Jong-su’s position, he was already born into his consequences. The film draws a line between the two extremes of South Korea’s social classes, fixated on extreme class inequality and underscoring economic desperation that destroys family, homes, and consumes dispossessed individuals. Jong-su holds himself humbly, but unconfidently, because he himself does not know how to live a life outside of how he lives his. It isn’t until he meets Ben when he finds out what a life a man could truly lead. Luxuries of imagination are reserved for the wealthy, whereas Hae-mi and Jong-su are forced to abandon their creative dreams to attend to the duties placed upon them.
And so, the best film of 2018 does just that: illuminates the intangibility of what separates the common man/woman from another, but also serves as an analogy to all the inherent rage the world has been filled with recently. We spiral deep down into unfolding the narrative just as Jong-su does, who eventually brings everyone down in his orbit with him. The only way Jong-su can ascend in life is through destruction. It’s easy to become infatuated with another’s way of life, but it’s even easier to be consumed by jealousy. And sometimes, we just want to burn it all down.