Burning ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Had been a year or so since I last fired this up and not only has it 100% held up as one of my favorites of the last decade but also this watch clarified a lot for me that I was still mulling over in my first few watches. There’s an expression that if you drop a frog into boiling water it’ll jump right out but if you put it in the water and slowly turn up the heat it won’t notice that it’s being boiled until it’s too late, and that’s a perfect metaphor for the way this movie manages to ratchet up the tension so slowly that it transforms into a full-on thriller without you even really noticing the shift as it happens. (The cat’s name is “Boil” for a reason🔥)

This is perhaps the only great movie made about modern incels — because it’s not even so much about how Jong-Su is too awkward to get a girl but more about the experiences of alienation, isolation, and frustration that comes with the lack of status and confidence he has compared to the other men he is competing with. The conflict of the movie is centered around a supposed love triangle between the three leads but it’s actually just a competition between the two men who both see her as something to be had, a trophy they could posses to achieve dominance over the other. In the few moments where Hae-Mi opens up to the two of them they seem completely disinterested in her inner emotional life, ignoring her completely to the point that she passes out. Jong-su claims that he loves Hae-mi but wha he calls love is really an obsessive desire. What jong-su wants is not Hae-Mi the person but rather the idea of Hae-mi - a picture hanging on the wall he can jerk off to. It’s why he gives up on trying to find her and rescuing her from whatever trouble she might be in and instead becomes obsessed with getting to the bottom to what’s going on with Ben, while Ben moves on to someone else he can play with.

One of the things that popped out to me most this time around is the character details of Jong-Su’s relationship with his father and the cyclical trauma and tragedy that is clearly passed down from dad to son. Jong-Su’s acts of cruelty don’t fully make sense until you learn that when his mother left them his father instructed him to burn his own mother’s clothes in a symbolic act of retribution. In addition to inheriting his father’s misogyny and violent rage, Jong-Su has also inherited a world in which he and many of his peers have less opportunities than his parents were afforded, further amplifying his disillusionment with the world. He simultaneously feels like a failure compared to his father and has also watched his father squander what little success he managed to achieve, and soon after watching his dad sentenced to prison for assault he follows in his father’s footsteps. This movie doesn’t ask you to be sympathetic toward Jong-Su ad forgive him for his actions as much as it places you in his disorientated, paranoid headspace and makes you understand where his decisions come from and why someone could easily go mad in his circumstances. 

At a time when there are more great gatsbys of questionable economic means than ever, there are also fewer and fewer opportunities for those like Jong-Su, and this understandably inspires a boiling pot of rage and jealousy inside him. He projects that rage onto Ben, because Ben represents not only the literal cucking he’s experiencing with Hae-MI but also the metaphorical economic cucking he’s experiencing as someone on the business end of late period capitalism. Lee Chang Dong identifies this bubbling rage as one of the key themes of the movie, saying: 

...it seems that today, people all over the world, regardless of their nationality, religion, and social status, are angry for different reasons. The rage of young people is a particularly pressing problem. The millennials living in Korea today will be the first generation that are worse off than their parents’ generation. They feel that the future will not change significantly. Not able to find the object to direct their rage at, they feel a sense of debilitation. This film is about young people who feel impotent, with rage bottled up inside them

Some of the political signaling and symbolism in this movie wavers on feeling a little too on the nose (namely the brief appearance of Trump on a tv) but this feeling of impotent rage he’s describing is so perfectly captured in this movie and is so essential and terrifyingly common in this moment in our history.

And the ending is the thing that ties all these threads together and also leaves you questioning everything that came before it. After being so submerged in Jong-su’s head and his growing suspicions that Ben might have murdered Hae-Mi for much of the movie, we are suddenly forced to reckon with how much of what we’ve seen through Jong-Su’s perspective can be trusted. Reminds me of Taxi Driver in that way — but the ending isn’t a “did it really happen?” dream sequence fantasy as much as it is a horrifyingly stark single take of exactly what kind of monster Jong-Su’s rage and paranoia have turned him into. His investigation of Ben was never about protecting a person he loved - this was about feeling so weak, impotent, and angry that he was willing to do anything to feel powerful and in control again.

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