I’m on my Halloween marathon! So every October I only watch horror movies throughout the month, to celebrate Halloween. Burning (2018) is actually on my watch list for this month and I got the chance to watch it last week (Also, please follow me on Letterboxd! I just made an account there and keep logging as much as I could!).
Burning (2018) by Lee Chang-dong has selected so many times in international movie festival including Palme d’Or, Cannes Film Festival, and even nominated to represent South Korea for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ entry in 91st Academy Awards. It is a psychological horror, adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’. The movie is sensual, unsettling, puzzling, and crawls under your skin after days! There are a lot to discuss, a lot of layers to be peeled, and this movie easily becomes my favourite.
Starring: Ah-In Yoo, Steve Yeun, Jong sea Jeon.
Burning (2018): Personal thought and Spoiler Analysis (in a separate section)
Lee Jong-su is an average 20 something farm-boy who is struggling between part-time delivery jobs. Later when he had some errands in the city, he met Shin Hae-mi, his childhood neighbour and middle school friend whom he didn’t recognise at first. That night they went out for a drink or two and Hae-mi said something more or less like “Hey, actually could you do me a favour, can you feed my cat while I’m gone to Africa for a month.”
And it was the first night that they reunited. He went to her house the next morning and they had sex, then she went to Africa. You know what’s crazier? He fed the cat for a month and not once he saw the cat like at all. He saw the litter, and it’s enough evidence to convince him that the cat is there.
After a month, Hae-mi went back to Korea but she brought a new friend, Ben (Steve Yeun). Then the three of them started to hangout together (although Jong-su seemed unsurprisingly uncomfortable with this). One day they enjoyed blunt together on Jong-su’s house in Paju. When Hae-mi passed out, Ben and Jong-su started to share their stories. Jong-su said that his mom left him and his sister with his mentally unstable dad when they were kids. Ben confessed that he has this peculiar hobby; he is an arsonist who likes to burn abandoned greenhouses.
The day after, Hae-mi has gone MIA. Like a wind. Like she never exists. And the rest of the movie is Jong-su trying to find out what’s going on.
My personal review.
At first, we can see that this movie is a character study of class gap in suburban life. Three of them are lonely in their own way. Jong-su’s mom left when he was a kid, Hae-mi is living her mundane life, trying to run away from debts, and hungry for the meaning of life, and Ben, well Ben is rich and have so many friends. But he hates his friends (you’ll see that he invites his friends a lot, but they’re boring. He keeps yawning during the gathering).
We were presented with presence and absence, and the sheer line of ambiguity in between. Thus, give us a whole weird and unsettling vibe. This movie is also exploring the idea of doubt, paradox, and duality, by presenting contradictory evidence simultaneously, even quoted explicitly in the movie.
The Schrödinger’s cat.
Lee Jong-su, the protagonist, is trying to investigate the ambiguity by ignoring obvious weird things that happens, and focusing on finding the truth instead. Sadly for him, the truth is never singular, just like everything else in this world. There’s an idea about Schrödinger’s cat here. And we’re talking about an actual cat named Boil. (Boil is Hae-mi’s cat that Jong-su never saw until.. well..). The cat might be present or absent, but it’s only possible if observed outside the box.
When they had their night out together, Hae-mi said that she recently started to learn how to mime. She performed an act of eating a tangerine in front of Jong-su. She said the idea of miming is not pretending that the tangerine is not there, but to forget that it isn’t there. She said slowly, your mouth started to salivate and it will taste sweet, like eating an actual tangerine. Does this have anything to do with the cat?
Also, Hae-mi said that she was once drowned in a well near their house and Jong-su saved her. He didn’t remember having a well within the vicinity, but Hae-mi is so convincing. He started to doubt his own memories and started asking people around whether there was a well near Hae-mi’s house. But no one remembered there was. He even tried to asked Hae-mi’s sister about this accident, but they said Hae-mi’s head is always somewhere else; she likes to making up stories. Again we’re challenged by stories from both sides, making us realise that memory is a very unreliable piece of information.
So is Hae-mi lying? Or we just have to forget that these things aren’t there to actually living in her reality? The more it goes, the more it gets weird, confusing and puzzling.
The horror of this movie is actually the doubts of knowing or not knowing anything, blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s not. And sometimes the weight is on us too, as the viewers! We’re given so little that even we’re outside the box as the observer, we’re still not 100% sure of what’s happening.
I actually love some surreal elements in this movie as well. Like for example when Ben told Jong-su that he’s an arsonist, and how he realised that arson is his passion ever since he was a child when he burned his first greenhouse. Later that night, Jong-su had a dream of him being a kid again, watching a greenhouse burned into dust and he was excited. He is kind of blend this new information and have a blurred facts about which is whose and what is true.
There are some points that I actually think that Jong-su’s obsession towards Ben is unhealthy and each day making him losing grip to his sanity.
Talking about pattern.
We mostly learned about the characters from their interaction and conversation, as for Jong-su’s, from his actions. For example, we learned that Ben is borderline sociopath, when he said that he never once cried of anything, or being sentimental. He also said something about morality of nature.
“It rains. It floods, people get swept away. *laughing*. But does the rain judge (does the rain think of this consequence before it decided to pour?). There’s no right or wrong there, only the morality of nature.”
This also give the nuance of nature being deterministic; that he believes— plays part in the process of everything. Maybe what he is trying to say is: “Things are they way it should be. Maybe it’s written in your DNA. You stay miserable and poor, and I’m rich and happy. And that’s just how things supposed to be, no hard feeling.” and ladida. This brings us to another theme, which is pattern.
Jong-su might or might not trapped in the pattern that he didn’t realised. We only learned about Jong-su’s dad during the hearing and the trial (his dad is on the trial for destruction of property). Jong-su also stated in conversation that his dad had anger issue, when the episode comes, it would be like explosion that breaks everything apart. Is he the one who is mentally unstable, because he inherited it from his father mixed with his childhood trauma?
There are a lot of repeated patterns in this movie that we need to explore more, but probably need a second time watching. I’m still trying to recover so, maybe later. Haha.
My conclusion is, sometimes what you see and what you believe can contradict one another and this movie is a huge metaphor of it. Although Korean is big for its drama, the Hallyu thriller is ALWAYS mesmerising and never once fail me. I need to watch for this Lee Chang-dong dude! He made good sh*t.
WARNING: Spoiler Analysis!
This section is just for people who already watched the movie. If you haven’t watched it and please come back later to read this part. Stop right here if you don’t want me to spoil it.
Ben gave clues about Hae-mi.
In the third act of the movie, Hae-mi is gone. Missing. Like a dust. The puns of this movie is actually creeping me out. For example: Ben mentioned his joy of explosion so many time. After learning that Hae-mi is missing, he admitted to Jong-su that he also stopped seeing Hae-mi because she didn’t pick up her phone.
He said: “It’s weird, it’s like she just disappeared like dust” or some sort.
After going back from Africa, Hae-mi recalled a great memory of sunset there and she cried, she said about her wish to disappear completely like dust. Well? Coincidence?
Ben once said to Jong-su that he has a habit of burning the greenhouse every two months. The next greenhouse would be the one closest to Jong-su’s house. After learning about this new information, Jong-su checked the greenhouses around the area everyday, like he’s obssesed. But nothing has been violated. He even confronted it to Ben and Ben said maybe he didn’t look enough. He added:
“Sometimes things are hard too see because it’s too close to you.”
Then Hae-mi went missing. Is greenhouse just a metaphor? For a hopeless girl that has no future and easily damaged? We know that greenhouse is made of vinyl and very flammable. Is Hae-mi… murdered?
Before Hae-mi disapperance, we witnessed that Jong-su found a lot of girl’s bracelet and accessories in Ben’s dressing room. On the final act, after confronting Ben once again, he found out that Hae-mi’s watched has been added to the collection. Even now Ben has a cat! (and the cat comes when being called by ‘Boil’. Weird coincidence?). We can assume that Ben keeps these as a memento, as he is a serial killer.
Then, Jong-su killed Ben and burn his clothes with Ben’s body. Just like when Jong-su burned his mom’s clothes after she left. Another pattern that he cannot escape.
The last scene was super powerful, super great. These three actors and actress are giving their best performance! I can see myself recommend this movie over and over again to people. Haha.
Verdict: 5 out of 5.