It is always hard to write about foreign films, especially when they are so clearly speaking to issues so prevalent to their contemporary culture. So not being South Korean, I feel somewhat ill-equipped to discuss Lee Chang-dong’s Burning; yet, its themes can speak across culture, dealing with concerns of inequality and decline.
Based on the Haruki Murakami story Barn Burning, the film has been touring various film festivals, including Cannes and the MIFF. It is a story about a man and woman, who love each other, but fall apart because of their egos; about a rich young man, who burns things for sick apathetic fun; and about the difficulties of finding meaning in a modern society, as the world slides into hyper-consumptive decay.
Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), the protagonist of this story, meanders through his life; he has finished university but is only able to find temporary work. He wants to write, but professes he doesn’t really know what about; people reacting to his creative writing degree with gauche amusement. He clearly feels disconnected from the world, a feeling wonderfully captured by Ah-in through the dazed reclusive expression he wears throughout much of the film. Much of this seems to have arisen from his family issues – his mother abandoning him when he was young due to his father’s anger issues and abuse, and in turn, his father is on trial for assaulting a government official; who refuses to take a plea deal because of his pride. This reflects an overarching feeling of abandonment that lingers throughout the film. Figures of authority like the police or government officials are largely absent, leaving the poorer classes to rot, while rich men like Ben (Steven Yeun) thrive. Thus, it seems hard to tell whether his father’s assault on the official was justified. Instead, it was ineffectual and left his son to care for the cluttered old house and parentless young calf – yet in the end he remained true to his own character in the face of societal decay. Yet Jong-su’s character seems ill defined; if it were not for his reunion with Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), he would likely continue alone in that old house which bursts to the seams with old junk.
Haemi enters the picture as a cliché, frumpy old childhood friend now grown-up and beautiful in love with our protagonist. The artificiality of this reunion highlighted by the character noting that she had plastic surgery to facilitate this change, which also hints towards the undercurrent of sexism that runs throughout this society; an undercurrent which in turn leads to her demise. Because despite Jong-su’s profession that he loves Haemi, he utterly fails her because he is so driven by his insecurity and jealousy towards Ben. This insecurity is achieved cinematically by the camera’s refusal to show Ben and Haemi’s relationship, never seeming consummated on screen, instead only being apparent through Jong-su’s resentment. Their interactions upon her return from Africa present us with the seed of his failures – upon meeting with her at the airport he clearly wants and expects a heartfelt loving greeting, but it is cut short by the introduction of Ben, who then upstages Jong-su with his wealth. It is easy to read the situation as Jong-su seems to, that Haemi discards him in favour of a more affluent model, but frankly he never shows her the same affection he seems to expect in return. When Ben offers Haemi a lift back home, she never responds; Jong-su relents and tells her to, already having given up. Throughout the rest of the movie he treats her with a quiet resentment, questioning how she can be with Ben when she knows so little about him. Even when they were having sex at the beginning of the film, Jong-su was reclusive and awkward, seeming uncomfortable expressing his feelings. This all culminates in him implying she is a whore, only moments after he admitted to Ben he loves her, highlighting that the love he feels for her is bent by sexist expectations. The sad thing is, as we later learn from Ben, she probably loved Jong-su in return, but his treatment of her likely pushed her away.
When we first meet Haemi she tells Jong-su she got plastic surgery to make herself ‘pretty’. Later when she invites Jong-su back to her apartment she tells him a story of the time he called her “ugly” when they were teenagers, stating that was the time he spoke to her when they were that age. Her later story about him rescuing her from a well, which is later confirmed by his mother, suggests that he was always an important figure to her and that her move towards surgery was partially inspired by his words and a drive to appeal to him. Furthermore her complaint that he doesn’t remember the events she talks about suggest that she feels neglected by him, that despite all the work she put into pleasing him it isn’t enough. In fact it seems to work against her, as the last thing he says to her is to chastise her for dancing topless. The hypocrisy at play is again highlighted by her co-worker who notes how hard it is for women in this society: if they don’t wear make-up or dress to look ‘attractive’, they are seen as ugly and not working hard enough; if they do, they are ‘trying too hard’ and are called whores. Like Jong-su, Haemi flitters around without purpose, trying to follow society’s demands she ends up in debt and unwelcome in her family. Fleeing to Africa in the hopes of finding a cure for the “Great Hunger” of existential want, she returns musing about how she’d just like to disappear, which unfortunately happens because of Ben.
Ben is a wealthy sociopath, who seems born into success and takes pleasure in pointless destruction. His early admission that he never cries instantly keys the viewer in that he is not dangerous, the pride he seems to take in it suggesting he sees himself almost detached and above other people. He is immensely wealthy in comparison to Jong-su or Haemi, clearly displayed through his car and particularly his apartment. His apartment is shocking not for the ornate statues which line the hall, or even the predatory hoard of women’s accessories, but for its cleanliness; Haemi and Jong-Su’s homes feel almost overburdened with things, as though they lack the space to fit everything they consume, yet Ben’s is nearly shimmering in its emptiness. Yet despite his obvious wealth we never learn what he does to earn it, dodging the question when Jong-su asks with a mock answer “Simply put I play”, implying to me he does no meaningful work and careens by on self-perpetuating wealth. Frankly it doesn’t really matter, because there is nothing he could do to justify the wealth discrepancies we see. It is no coincidence that the film features a clip of President Trump on the news, as he is the archetypical wealthy leech of our time. The elevator in Ben’s apartment even has a similar tacky gold gilded look to that of Trump Tower, furthering the parallel. As he is the representative of the upper class, his crimes and the crimes of the wealthy are intrinsically linked. The image of the greenhouse burning, while seemingly a metaphor for Ben’s predatory violence, also represents the destruction of industry for the amusement of a class who are too powerful to be affected.
Which is why I believe that Jong-Su killing him seems such a grey area, as like his father’s assault it is both a sign of his own repressed anger but also an act of resistance. He burns Ben’s Porsche, destroying the thing that first signified him as being above Jong-Su and Haemi. But how much will that really change things? We are left unsure, as the film ends with Jong-su driving past the inferno, recalling Haemi’s musing on the sunset in Africa, the colours drift from orange to red to purple as he fades into nothingness, leaving the viewer in the dark and uncertain.
Words by William Chesterfield.