Having written my university dissertation on South Korean cinema I think it’s safe to say I’m a fan of the nation’s work. When Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won best picture at the Academy Awards in 2019, I was ecstatic at the thought that now is the time for Korean cinema to explode internationally and be recognised for the powerhouse that it is.
When Burning was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival I waited impatiently for it to release on digital platforms. A year later, I finally got my chance to watch this masterpiece. Burning by Lee Chang-dong is a slow burn of a drama based off a short story by Haruki Murakami that unapologetically refuses to hand out answers and instead rewards you for coming to conclusions yourself, whether they are right or wrong.
Jong-su played by Yoo Ah-In is a livestock farmer’s son that works in the big city while living at his family’s farmhouse in Paju, a city sandwiched between Seoul and the North Korean border. He has completed his mandatory 2 years national service in the Korean military and is trying to become a writer having graduated with a creative writing degree. The film opens following Jong-su at work where he runs into Hae-mi, a former neighbour of his. Hae-mi, played by Jeon Jong-seo, has had plastic surgery explaining Jong-su initially not recognizing her. They go out for catch-up drinks that evening and somehow Hae-mi manages to easily convince Jong-su to look after her cat while she goes on a trip to Africa to satisfy her “great hunger” to experience life. When Hae-mi shows Jong-su her apartment and gives him access, she accuses Jong-su of calling her extremely ugly when they were younger and then proceeds to take his virginity. When Hae-mi is away for her trip exploring the wonders that Africa has to offer, Jong-su makes the daily trip from out of town to feed her cat. When he tries to catch a glimpse of the cat in this tiny studio flat, there is no cat to be found yet there is evidence that there is one. As Jong-su scans the flat, he can’t help but think about the memory of losing his virginity and yearns for Hae-mi’s touch.
You learn very quickly about the type of people Hae-mi and Jong-su are from this interaction and you begin to understand what Burning is about. At its core, Burning is about desire and how people are blinded by it – the ability of an individual to completely shape their reality based on what they want to be true. Lee showcases this cleverly through Schrodinger’s cat – or more appropriately I guess “Hai-mi’s cat” as whether its there or not doesn’t really matter to Jong-su, he only cares about the box.
One of the things I particularly love about Burning is its ability to showcase the power of “show, don’t tell” in filmmaking. Yoo and Jeon’s acting prowess for body language and subtly conveying mannerisms in their characters paired with Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography (same cinematographer as Parasite by the way) makes it feel like you are truly intimate with these characters almost to the point of voyeurism. Furthermore, Lee Chang-dong and Oh Jung-mi’s screenplay makes the characters reveal so much about themselves with so little. This is exemplified with Ben, a mysterious third party introduced to us when Hae-mi returns from her trip to Africa.
Played by Steven Yuen, as many of you may recognize from The Walking Dead and his recent Oscar nomination for best actor, Ben’s character serves as the so-called antagonist to Jong-su’s protagonist. However, how much that is really depends on your perspective of the relationship dynamic between Jong-su, Hae-mi, and Ben. The film loves to play with your moral compass and you really have to decide whether you feel empathy, sympathy, or apathy for these characters. In Ben’s case, you learn quickly how different he is from the other two. He’s older, successful, wealthy, and educated and he doesn’t hide it. Jong-su is immediately threatened by his presence as it is clear that the attention he was receiving from Hae-mi is now being directed to this more attractive and mysterious individual.
What people might initially think as Ben being nice quickly turns into acknowledging that he is bragging and showing off his lifestyle to Jong-su and Hae-mi who could only ever dream of living his life. When asked why he likes to cook, Ben says:
“Just as humans make offerings to the gods, I make my own offering and consume it”.
Throughout the film, Ben remains a mystery, but his desires are displayed clearer than a bonfire in a field. He wears his God-complex on his sleeve and revels in meddling with the lives of those he sees beneath him. Through Ben, Lee manages to masterfully manipulate the audiences desires, making us feel the need to know about Ben and his secrets.
Burning could be viewed as a commentary on the social divide between classes especially within Korea and how the upper class that’s highly influenced by western concepts disparages the lower class. However, what the film really excels at conveying is humanity’s desire to want what they don’t have. How Jong-su yearns for attention and love, how Hae-mi yearns for freedom to live an exciting life, and how Ben wants nothing but his own entertainment. There really isn’t a beginning, middle and end for this film. Instead, it feels like a thread that loops back on itself with a handful of knots interspersed at carefully selected intervals and only once it’s too late do you realise the thread changed colour.
Its quite difficult to talk more about the films plot in the short number of words that I have here and quite frankly, I don’t want to reveal anymore as it might influence the opinions and emotions you develop for these characters yourself. I wouldn’t necessarily consider Burning a comfortable film for dipping your toe into Korean filmmaking. It’s more like cliff diving headfirst into an ocean. Hopefully though, you emerge from the depths only wanting to take the plunge again.
Words by Josh Campbell