This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
eraserheadBB’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Note: I did my best to keep this review as structured as possible, but there were so many more thoughts racing through my head than I expected when I began to type this a few hours ago. This review started as a 9/10, but the more I typed the more certain I was that Burning is a flat out masterpiece. This review is easily my longest and fresh off a first viewing, so proceed with caution and I hope you enjoy!
"When I read his books, it feels like I'm reading about myself."
I'm not going to lie, the first five minutes of Burning had me a bit worried. The setup for Jong and Hae-mi's meeting felt realllllll convenient, and their personalities and motivations felt apparent right away. Jong being the timid and shy guy who has the perfect girl fall in his lap. Even with how apparent it was that Jeon Jong-seo was acting her ass off as Hae-mi, I feared the worst: "Please, for the love of God, don't be a manic pixie dream girl."
Even with that worry passing me by in the opening scenes, I was fairly surprised afterwards to find the one huge critique against Burning to accept my worry as fact. Last time I checked, I don't remember many manic pixie dream girls being completely shunned by the men around her, have her cries for help disregarded, and borderline be on the verge of a mental breakdown at any moment. With the pixie girl cliche, its expected that the character exhibit no flaws for the men's desire, and if there are flaws, the man be prepared to miraculously solve them to win over the heart of their fantasy come to life. Burning doesn't have an ounce of fantasy in it.
The gears in my head immediately started shifting when right before an equally thought provoking sex scene, Hae-mi admits to Jong that she knows that he called her ugly when they were in school together, unprovoked. Jong has no recollection of this memory. Despite this, Hae-mi immediately embraces Jong, which leads to the sex scene. All film, Hae-mi puts on a facade that she's the girl that men want her to be, sexy and confident after her plastic surgery (what seemed like a throwaway line early in the film) to finally find any form of satisfaction in her life, but even then her trials for meaning come up fruitless. Another complaint from audiences is that Hae-mi is treated as an accessory to both of the male characters, and that their subtle misogyny is to be condemned. Aka the exact point the film is trying to make.
The sex scene is absolutely amazing because it tells you everything you need to know about Jong and Hae-mi. From the get go, it is obvious that Jong has little no idea what he is doing. His timing is off, his body language is lost, and he struggles to put on the condom until Hae-mi graciously helps him. When the two start having intercourse, Jong is terrified of his own inadequacies and sinks deeper into himself. He zones out, looking for any sign that someone might be watching him. Jong wants Hae-mi, but has no clue how to communicate this to her.
Hae-mi wants to feel validated, but the allusion of happiness evades her as no one reassures her or gives her the answers to satisfy her. The men don't, and neither does the world around her.
The atmosphere of the oncoming apocalypse looms over Burning like the greenhouse gases that loom over our heads every night. The doom and gloom of Burning is met with the same response that the doom of gloom of living in 2018 is met with: silent repression. Jong's home borders the South Korean/North Korean border, and he hears the propaganda from their speakers every night. This is his normal. News plays of Donald Trump's' numerous, not-at-all fascist policies as Jong gets ready in the morning. This is my normal. In the same broadcast, Jong overhears a news story about the huge growth in youth unemployment, another reminder that he can't find a steady job after his mandatory military service has ended. But how is he supposed to work a job that won't properly pay him, over work him, and treat him like cattle when ultimately he will be filling the pockets of the Great Gatsby's of Korea, who don't give a shit about him anyway? Jong wants to be a writer all film, but can't seem to find the energy to create because "he doesn't understand how to world works." Hae-mi's same quest for answers only bring up more questions. She maxes out her credit cards to take a spiritual journey to Africa, but instead of finding peace in Africa’s beautiful sunsets, she finds the eventual destruction of the world within it, sparking an existential crisis. When Hae-mi reveals that her delay in coming home is because of the bombing of the Kenyan Airport, she reassures Jong that she's ok, "I guess they're used to it here." Jong almost seems relieved that might be true.
In Jong, a further source of alienation comes in his crippling social anxiety. When Jong is alone at any point in the film, he is actually acting like himself. He gleefully mocks Boil the cat any time he goes to feed it, and sings a goofy song for his cow when he tends for it. The scene when Jong is cleaning up after the cow is one of my absolute favorites, because the moment his phone rings, you can see the switch flip in Jong's brain from the person he is by himself vs. the person he is in public. Early in the film, I figured Jong's passivity was a means of getting the audience to easier see themselves as Jong, the same way lazily written video games have their generic main character. When Ben arrives into Jong and Hae-mi's lives, Jong is rendered a shell of himself, past the point of basic shy guy tropes. Jong's inability to connect with Hae-mi is amplified to the point where he can't even talk to her when Ben is around he feels so inferior to him. There are scenes where it is visible how much Jong is trying to disappear into the wallpaper that surrounds him, avoiding anything that draws attention to himself and the alienation he feels.
That same dissection in private vs public life infiltrates how Jong pubicly and privately "loves" Hae-mi. In public, he is terrified of her. In jealousy of Ben, he lashes out at her, calling Hae-mi a slut when she dances naked and stoned in the sunset. Hae-mi was reaching out to them, but the two can only stare. Ben cackles at Jong when he tells him he loves Hae-mi not as a challenge or mockery, but because Jong has never shown the capacity to care about her in front of him. In public, Jong folds inwards, but in private Jong imagines a Hae-mi he loves. Notice how in his visions of her, he only thinks of her sexually and masturbates to the thought of her. In person, Jong couldn't even mentally be there with Hae-mi while having sex, but that doesn’t prevent him from dreaming of a verison of her without his own faults getting in the way.
I told myself early in the film that I really, really, really did not want to relate to Jong, and it terrified me every time when I did.
When Burning transforms from the slow burn (I’m sorry) character studies into the full blown sinister-as-fuck thriller it becomes, I was a string wrapped around Lee Chang-dong’s finger. He just kept tightening it and tightening it and tightening it to the point where I was ready to snap at any moment. Chang-dong would expertly use the film’s theme and the tense string sound at the precise moment I felt myself tensing up. right to the point where the sounds and I were practically in sync. Scenes would build and build and build only to suddenly cease with no answers to be had, no release to be felt. Mysteries upon mysteries layering up upon each other. Funny enough, in the theater I think I took in Burning at its least ambiguous interpretation as humanly possible. I was pretty much on the same page as Jong, this fucker Ben did it! It wasn’t until the absolute last moment before Jong finally snaps, when as he approaches Ben with the knife, Ben mutters “Nice greenhouse! Say, where is Hae-mi? You said she was with y-“
I didn’t even have the time to react to Ben genuinely not knowing where Hae-mi was before Jong slaughtered him right before my eyes in ONE FUCKING BEAUTIFUL TAKE. And roll credits.
My entire recollection on the events of the film were tossed out the window. I initially thought on the phone call that Hae-mi for sure committed suicide, but why would her landlord not know? How come their parents don’t know? Is she still paying rent? Why is her luggage out on the roof? She for sure jumped right? No wait, her landlord would’ve for sure known she was dead then, what is happening? WAIT! Hae-mi set a new lock on her apartment door! Did she not want Jong to come by anymore? Makes sense considering he called her a slut the last time they saw each other, but is she just going to ghost not just him but the entire universe like that? Is she really dead?? WHERE’S THE GOD DAMN WELL?!?!??
I love the idea that the well is a metaphor for Hae-mi being trapped, and Jong “saved” her without remembering or knowing he did. Hae-mi now holds that idea with anger, as she desperately cries for help and this time Jong is nowhere ready to be there for her. The moment when Hae-mi’s family mentions that there was never a well, and Jong replied “I’m just imagining how she felt trapped down there”, fucking chills went down my spine. He was still looking for the physical well, when really she was down there the whole film.
I’m ok with not knowing the answers, because the build up in Jong’s anger as the film builds in tension is just masterful. He becomes even more disillusioned with the work force, denying a paying job and losing his cow in the process. His anger at Ben is the same anger he directs at society at large and the father who’s failed him. Jong represses these emotions not just as a way of coping with the day to day, but because he fears that same uncontrollable rage in his father, and that same lust to watch the world burn like Ben, is within him. As he trails Ben at a museum, he sees an art piece depicting destruction and war, all the blood on man’s hands. Is he capable of this? He looks up at Ben as he works out in his exclusive high rise gym, looking up at disgust at a system that lets the Gatsby’s of South Korea stay on top just by “playing”, while his good morals has only left him with a barely running truck. Even though Ben may have killed Hae-mi, there’s no denying that Ben knows that he killed Hae-mi, and any other alternative is never considered. Did Jong project his anger at the world and his own insecurities onto Ben? What are the odds that Ben has a “type” of girl he dates but never commits to? Couldn’t just any cat jump into Jong’s arms? The answers are somewhere in here right?
Ultimately, the answers are meaningless because the results remain the same. As Jong, Hae-mi, and even the audience struggle for answers in the world around them, Ben is certain of them. The way Ben “burns greenhouses” is the same way he views the world: “there is no right or wrong, just the morals of nature.” Ben notes that he can “make something disappear as if it never existed” and that power is the bass that rings inside of him. It is a lust for power and control that permeates the greed and dog eat dog culture of consumerism, a feeling that fuels the power dynamics of masculinity. The fire consuming a greenhouse is a visual manifestation of that feeling. As much as Jong wants to ignore it, he feels it too. He remembers burning his mother’s clothes and dreaming of the feeling that staring at a burning greenhouse would give him. It’s the same control he seeks for in his failed writing, the same control he lacks when he fucks Hae-mi, the same control that’s never there when he is unable to talk to her, the same control he never feels as an unemployed veteran who knows he’ll never climb the social ladder. As much as Jong hates everything Ben represents, he ultimately accepts this philosophy as his new way of life with blood on his hands. Ben is the greenhouse he has to burn. When Jong does so, one half of me thinks he breathes panic in and out of him, the other thinks he’s breathing in and out pleasure. As it is the whole film, the answers in Burning will evade me, but the terrifying forces of nature will swallow me whole.
Oh, and all the performances are fantastic. The cinematography is in the moment yet really bold. I’d love to read up on all the technical aspects/what he shot on. This is my introduction to Lee Chang-dong, and as you can tell I am absolutely blown away. I don’t know if it’ll top my best of 2018, but Burning is gonna stick with me for a long long long ass time.
Mini rant but I’ve been robbed the opportunity to see this in theaters twice because my local theater (who I won’t name because besides this they’re amazing) decided to only screen Burning for a week and keep the nature bro circle jerking of Free Solo on screens for what feels like the second month in a row. I swear Utahns get a boner everytime they see a large rock like bitch go outside there’s a mountain right there.