Burning ★★★★

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

This review may contain spoilers.

Warning: huge plot spoilers below!!

Landscapes of the burning soul. I’m going to say up front, this is just my interpretation of this film. I tend to not read other reviews before I write my own, so as always, if I’m wrong, I’m going to be spectacularly wrong. To me, this movie is a bit similar to “Nocturnal Animals,” except that film clearly signaled which parts of the story were the fictionalized part of a novel written by Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, and which parts were the base reality. There was an intermingling between the two stories, as that written story was a metaphoric message sent from one character to another about how much a breakup hurt them. In this film, there’s no such distinction being made between what is real or not. Remember, the main character, Lee Jong-su, is also a writer—albeit in name only, as he seems to suffer from creative block and is struggling to find an appropriate subject to write about.

There’s multiple indications that the character of Hae-mi is not real: there’s her ambiguously-corporeal cat (an apt symbol for creativity and Lee Jong-su’s searching for it), as well as the fact that she herself seems to barely exist, as she’s always gone on trips or missing outright, and often appears as a masturbatory sexual fantasy for Jong-su, even infiltrating his dreams. She’s the life impulse (closely tied to sexuality) that compels him to join in the music—the rising drum-beat dance of life that kick starts his writing process. He jealously admires Ben (played by Steven Yeung) from afar for being everything he’s not, as well as Ben’s close relationship with Hae-mi. To me, Ben’s relationship/friendship with Hae-mi is simply imagined by Lee Jong-su, as Ben does have another woman who appears to be his actual girlfriend, and which Jong-su projects his anima longings onto (symbolized by Hae-mi).

Of course, the “solving” of what this movie is about, is only a part of what makes it powerful. The surface level, slow-burn characterization of these characters, and the mysterious world and atmosphere it evokes is the main thing it succeeds at. But then again, good movies are often enjoyed in two stages: once in your immediate immersion and exposure into them, and then again in retrospect as you think back on it, and especially if they contain elements that slowly reward you with a bit of post-reconstructive analysis.

Hae-mi directly expresses her profound emptiness. She has a longing for something ineffable that she can’t quite put her finger on and which she equates to an African notion called the “great hunger.” She verbalizes exactly what Jong-su feels, except he’s such an internalized person who keeps these emotions bottled up inside him. There’s that motif of the burning greenhouses, both of which (greenhouses and burning) being symbols of transformation. Jong-su commits his final act, stripping down naked while killing Ben and setting him and his car ablaze. I’ve written about this before, but you do see this theme enacted in other works of art, one of the most notable examples being the novelist, Paul Auster, who often portrays a character who begins with a wanderlust search for something they don’t quite know yet. Through a long arduous process, they eventually strip themselves and everything else in their life down until they’re left stark naked, both figuratively and literally. It is at that point, in this sort of zen-like void of emptiness that they’re finally able to come face to face with whatever it was they were truly seeking the whole time. This seems to be very similar to the process that Lee Jong-su goes through in this film. It is essentially a story of creation; it’s a story of someone who goes through this metaphorical transformative process and reinvigorates himself with the vitality of life. He burns through the overgrown fields of decay, and by doing so, he allows the fertile possibilties of creativity (and storytelling) to begin anew, which also includes this very story we’ve been watching unfurl in front of us the whole time.

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