Burning ★★★★★

A smoldering, seductive, slow-burn mystery that'll cause your head to spin the more you think about it. This is one of the most layered, immense, richly ambiguous films I've seen in recent memory. A story about the frustrations of caste divide, of the rich vampirizing the poor, and of the fantasies people chase that remain forever beyond their reach. BURNING is the decidedly dark, more bewildering version of THE GREAT GATSBY, specifically, how it epitomizes the sociology of wealth, of power, and of desire, and how those traits create a baffling sort of dream logic in the mind of the miserable working-class, who crystalize their fixation on upper-class privilege. 

I haven't even begun to talk about this film.

I'm still just dazed by the breadth of its questions.


First, Ben.

What to make of him? Is he just some high-brow, social elite who gets off on manipulating the poor? Does he flaunt the social divide in order to charm women from less privileged means, thereby giving them a chance to reinvent themselves and join the bourgeoise? Does he promise luxury and adventure without price? Wait a minute! Is this guy a serial killer!?!?!? Is Ben secretly murdering unassuming women who won't be missed by anyone, let alone the state? Are those bracelets and watches some kind of sadistic collection of victim trophies? Is "burning greenhouses" code for antipathy and execution of the lower-class? Oh shit! What if he's trafficking these women to Africa, would that explain his mysterious wealth? What about his equally rich friends? Are they there just to be amused by lower-class fatuity, or are they, too, part of some conspiracy auction for fattening, selling, and slaughtering Ben's feminine calves? How long has this ritual been going on? How many female victims has Ben had? Is it at all conceivable he's innocent, and that his only crime is trolling the poorly educated out of boredom?

Second, Jong-su. 

What to make of him? Well, he's clearly a sad, angry, disadvantaged character, with possibilities like wealth and romance always beyond his grasp. Is that why he jerks off to the high-tower outside Hae-mi's window? Is that the closest he'll ever get to industry, power, capital, and success? What about Jong-su's explosive, lonely, farmer father? What does his time-bomb behavior and fierce collection of knives say about hereditary, and the ways proletariat rage gets passed down from one generation to the next? What would living on the North Korean border listening to propaganda for years and years do to such a literal, impressionable mind? What would losing his father, his mother, his dreams of being a writer, and now Ben, who represents everything he's ever wanted, someone who's here to cock-block him and steal his love —what would that do to him? 

Is it any wonder why Jong-su's toxic class envy gets translated into violent revolution? Oh damn! But what if Jong-su is wrong about Ben? What if he just murdered an innocent dude? Shit. But what if he's right? What if he knows that vigilante justice is the only way to take out a criminal whose wealth would bribe the legal system and get him off the hook? Could it be that Jong-su is drawing inspiration from his life situation to finally write a winning story, a thriller that will enable him to win back his life, join the upper class, and make millions? Above all, since the story is told from Jong-su's perspective, and he spends his days fantasizing about things that will most likely never be his, can anything we see transpire in his life be trusted? How reliable is his hallucinatory point of view? Did he ever have a relationship with Hae-mi to begin with, or was that just fantasy? Did he even kill Ben, or was that just lower-class projected rage?

Third, Hae-mi. 

What to make of her? Why does so much of her character feel like an apparition? A mirage? A hallucination? Between phantom cats, phantom tangerines, phantom wells, and discussion about wanting to disappear, to vanish, to melt away —what does the chimera she project upon those around her say about her character? Did she ever get plastic surgery? Did she ever go to Africa? I mean, if she exists roughly in the same class as Jong-su, where did she even get the money for such a trip? Or was the whole thing a hoax, a theatrical ploy to train with Ben, who was teaching her how to lie and let go of her old life to become someone new? Didn't she say she wanted to become a pantomime actress? Wouldn't this be the perfect opportunity to perfect her skills? Could she be connected to Ben's conspiracy gaming in any way? Or is she really just a plot device to be butchered in order provoke class rage between Ben and Jong-su? Does it even matter if she got snuffed out? Did she get snuffed out? Was she sold by Ben into sex-trafficking out in Africa? Is she just another female statistic on Ben's ever-growing list of lower-class victims?

My word. 

The questions this film provoked in me are endless. 

And here's the biggest catch: 

While Dong, at times, positions his characters in ways that make you feel convinced you know the truth of their worlds, the "evidence" he's provided is never *completely* conclusive to throw out all doubt. You'll be thinking about it for days. The interpretations will feel boundless. And if you're like me, you'll fall under its scorching spell and realize that each character still contains a bank vault of secrets, mysteries, dreams, possible lies, and pretty much anything that stunts our quest for ironclad certainty. Any theory we develop, in fact, eventually draws us right back into the Great Hunger, an investigative search for deep-meaning in a world brimming with shadows and half-truths. Maybe there's a lesson for us in all this phantom pantomiming: Once we've convinced ourselves that something is there, is it ever possible for us to unsee it? 

Go see this film. 

Let the terrifying mystery wash over you.

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