for what is probably the 20th time during one of these reviews, I’m gonna quote one of my favourite things the late Roger Ebert had ever said: “Movies don’t change, but their viewers do.” for the first time though, I might have to push back on this. or, at least invert it, for the sake of this piece. because I can’t say I’ve changed in such immense ways, within these past 2 years from when I first saw Burning, that would affect how I analyse this. but I can say that Burning did change on this second viewing: it is even more perplexing, even more mysterious, and even more difficult to fully comprehend.

lee Chang-dong is a filmmaker whose work I just haven’t clicked with yet. this film, and Secret Sunshine, are the only two of his I’ve seen. but each had left me with a sense that these stories did not need to be so long, so drawn out, and so overwhelming in their stagnation. thus, I haven’t hated what I’ve seen from his thus far, but a lot has been left to desire. they could’ve been more, had they been less. but my opinion on Burning has now changed, as I found a great deal more this time around. yet somehow, this makes it all the more hazy.

this time, my opinion during the first hour remained the same: the first 20 or so minutes are excellent, the remaining 40 minutes are puzzling. those first 20 mins introduce the characters, their relationship, and the overall scenario in a perfect way that manages to arch our suspicions, throw us for a loop without even realising it. that it also contains maybe one of the greatest sex scenes ever (because of how the tension ratchets, and how we’re just as unsure as Jong-su where this is all going) adds to its already thick layering. and ultimately, Burning is loaded with thick subtext throughout. one of the chief reasons that it all feels so...off is because it’s filmed like a realist slice of life, that also carries with it hitchcockian tension, and is buoyed by a minimalist yet striking score that plumbs the depths of the audience’s psyche. the next 40 mins are where Ben (Steven Yeun, always great) is introduced, and everything is thrown off. I can’t say I can relate to the actual plot and actions that Jong-su undertakes. but I can certainly relate to having a supposed connection with someone, only for something mysterious to occur without my knowledge, and someone else enters the picture. in that regard, it makes us as the audience relate to Jong-su in his pursuit of what exactly happened to Hae-mi personally and spiritually at first, but then what happens to her in regards to her actual disappearance later on. 

I mention the first hour being mostly in-tune with how I remembered it the first time. where Burning truly changed on this viewing for me was right after that. the scene in which the three characters get high, watch the sunset in the rural part of South Korea (they make it a point to note that North Korea isn’t too far from where they stand) is still breathtaking. the usage of Miles Davis’s Elevator to the Gallows score in this scene is a great nod to another film from the past that involved lovers, and great levels of tension sewn into its veins. the conversation had between the two males here is extremely revealing in its brevity. Ben talks about crimes (smoking pot there, burning greenhouses) like it’s nothing, even noting that the cops “don’t care”. well, actually, they do care in some instances: like Jong-su’s father being jailed for a manic episode that left a city employee injured. do we doubt for a second that if someone like Ben (i.e., someone wealthy) did this, that the same punishment wouldn’t have been handed down? you’d have to be naive to think that. and this is what’s ultimately revealed by not saying it, and maybe what Burning is actually about deep down. that there are different rules for the rich and the poor. 

Ben exudes a confidence, not necessarily a “cool”, but someone who makes themselves about to be esoteric, somewhat godlike (he talks about how cooking for himself is like an offering to a god), who is worldly because he travels. he drives a Porsche. he has a fancy building near gangnam. he can read palms. he can do anything he wants, whenever he wants. Jong-su is not afforded those same luxuries. he did his service, he graduated college, and all he has to show for it is a part-time job and an old, rundown farm. the wear and tear of life is evident in his face, which is never really calm or assured here. Hae-mi also suffers from the anxieties of working class life, though she never really shows it. the dinner scene, in which Ben basically parades Hae-mi, as some sort of lower-class circus attraction, around for his fellow upper echelon friends was perhaps the most revelatory scene here for me. Hae-mi is either painfully naive, or she thinks nothing of it. Jong-su seems to be fully aware of what Ben is doing, and how Ben’s friends are viewing her (do they even acknowledge Jong-su?). this all suggests to me that the poor are seen as either fodder, or not seen at all. it’s all such a cat-and-mouse game, but we’re never sure who is who. 

in 2018, Steven Yeun was in two films that succinctly covered issues of wealth inequality and class disparity: this one, and Boots Riley’s excellent Sorry to Bother You. that he was able to basically play opposite roles in each is a testament to how great of an actor he is. in Sorry to Bother You, he’s the union organiser, the spark plug in helping the telemarketers understand the true power of labour. in this, he’s the smug, capitalist pretty boy who exudes a confidence and swagger that would be grating had it not been earned. of course he’d feel that he owns the world, he kinda does. of course Jong-su feels uneasy throughout, how else would you expect one to function when their next meal isn’t a guarantee? Hae-mi is just along for whatever ride will get her through the day. Ben sees them both as experiments, fun little asides in a conversation he has no real care for. Burning seethes with resentment towards the Bens of the world (or just South Korea in this instance). maybe my politics are influencing this take, but that’s how I saw it.

and then the disappearance. this is where my theory of this all having a subtext of class conflict seems to shine most. of course, nobody else but Jong-su would care, or even notice, that Hae-mi has gone. Ben doesn’t seem to dismayed. Ben wouldn’t seem like a likely killer...except that he believes he’s above everyone else, and has a penchant for destroying things (burning greenhouses). the final apartment scene, specifically how the cat responds to Ben and to Jong-su differently, is so brilliant. and the actual final scene of the film...it still confuses me. it’s straightforward, I get what happened, but it’s filmed in a way that’s almost too calm. it’s unsettling, but it all feels real. and maybe that’s why it’s so unsettling, because of its blunt actuality. 

Jong-su’s mother: “if only I’d been younger. I would’ve sold my organs.” this is the type of world Burning inhabits. Ben’s friends discuss how China and America are similar, and how they put themselves at the center rather than think about others (the latter is spoken of derisively, as if they strive to be as culturally and economically dominant as those two superpowers; they strive to achieve the soullessness of dominance). class conflict is apparent in how we all go about our everyday lives. it affects who we interact with, who we have proximity to interact with, how we respond to violence, how we navigate murky relationships, and ultimately how we try to not fall into the same traps that have plagued others from generations prior. but with regards to that last point, sometimes it’s unavoidable. what good does the revenge here do? at the end of the day, he’s still trapped and the mystery of Hae-mi’s disappearance isn’t solved in the slightest. 

Burning is defined by its murkiness. it’s a film that probably isn’t as complicated as I’ve perceived it to be, but it definitely has a lot both under the surface and right in your face. maybe it’s about what I think it’s about, but if it is about that, then why is it shown in this way? couldn’t it have been shorter? but if it was shorter, we wouldn’t have experienced it in the way that it should...every second does matter here. maybe it’s about what’s exactly on screen, nothing more nothing less. maybe it’s about much more. it’s all so maddening. and Burning attacks my sense of how I perceive films like this, and does so by being unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. sometimes, I guess a film isn’t meant to entertain, or enlighten, or provoke. sometimes it just is.

I might not ever fully understand it, but Burning won’t ever change.

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