Written by Jungmi Oh & Chang-dong Lee
Directed by Chang-dong Lee
Jong-su Lee is from a rural community north of Seoul but travels down to the big city to do odd jobs. While on one of these gigs he runs into Hae-mi, a woman he grew up with but only has faint memories of. They go out for drinks, and she explains how she’s going on a trip to Africa soon and wonders if he would stop by and feed her cat while she’s gone. Lee comes over to her apartment where they have sex, and then his life becomes distracted by his father’s arrest for assault and caring for the farm. When Hae-mi returns from her vacation she has Ben in two, the only other Korean she met while in Africa. Ben immediately captures her attention, and any feelings she had for Lee seem to have evaporated. However, Lee feels that there is something off about Ben, a man who makes money through mysterious circumstances and admits he doesn’t understand the emotions of other people. Lee fears that something terrible is going to happen to Hae-mi.
Burning reminded me of the work of Michael Haneke, moving at its own pace and not willing to over dramatize moments of truth, allowing these events to linger and for the audience to be within them for a while. This is not a taut psychological thriller despite what the description states. There is a definite strong through line of tension from the moment Ben comes on the scene, but Chang-dong Lee refuses to exploit emotion through traditional film scores or showy camera angles. It’s this mundanity that makes the protagonist’s slow realization of what has happened the more resonant. There’s a beautiful Chekov’s Gun moment where Lee discovers his father’s stash of hunting knives and a later revelation that his father has a long history of violent outbursts, which has led to his current arrest. All these pieces falling into place create beautiful dissonance between information. We believe the story will end one way, then another scene adds to our knowledge, and it appears that what we thought may have been entirely wrong.
What I found to be the thematic core of Burning was the questioning of certainty. Lee never sees the full picture he gets small, seemingly contradictory facts from a few people. The moments where you could argue he has the strongest confirmations of his suspicions are weaker upon further examination. A cat responding to its name maybe didn’t react to that name, there was something else that caused it to come to Lee’s arms. There’s never enough there to know for sure what happened, but Lee still makes a decision of finality that stays with us beyond the fade to black and rolling of credits. That feeling of dissatisfaction you feel is the natural result of a film structured not to give you closure.
There’s a commentary going on about social and class roles in modern South Korea as well. Lee and Hae-mi are children of farmland while Ben is very much an urban creature. Lee holds great suspicion about Ben based mostly around his level of wealth. He drives a Porsche. He has a plush city apartment and frequents posh coffee shops. We never know how Ben lives this lifestyle but Lee this lack of clarity is a significant factor in his lack of trust. Hae-Mi lives in a little two-room apartment (one room is the bathroom) that highlights her place on the lower rungs. She works a job as a promotional model outside of stores and events, not an entirely glamorous job. However, she has money to travel all over? She does go to Africa which leaves us questioning how she can do this. Lee seems tethered to both the farmland of his father and the potential emergence of his father’s violent tendencies in himself.
Burning isn’t a film that will present a full mystery with a solution. This is a movie about the way we fill in the blanks when confronted with mysteries. Our guesses can become full-on truths in our mind if we fail to be vigilant. Lee never seeks third-party help; he never goes to the police, he never finds an outside viewpoint. Instead, he takes in information, a passing conversation, the presence or lack of an object that should or should not be somewhere. Ben makes a case for himself to be an incredibly evil person but in such a subtle slight way. In the final moments of Burning, Lee is at his least sure of himself that he’s been the entire film and I suspect much of the audience is right there with him.