Burning

Burning ★★★★½

– Most immediately struck by the film’s nature as one specifically interested in the contemporary existence(s) of young people and how the source material is adapted in such a way so as to internalize and express the deep and conflicting fears, disillusionment, and intermittent happiness that at least two of the three presented existences entail. That a director in his sixties could be so attuned and empathetic toward this state of almost ontological dissonance in the lives of a younger generation strikes me as simply marvelous, a compliment I offer without wishing to come across as unduly pretentious.

– The aforementioned dissonance is intrinsically characterized by matters of class and the film’s first act establishes this with real subtlety and to powerful effect, from the opening tracking shots introducing both Jong-su and Hae-mi going about their work to their initial conversations over a smoke break and a meal to their having sex in a cramped apartment. The audience immediately identifies the milieu appropriate to these characters and it is one that determines the discomfort and aura of condescension that pervades their interactions in higher class settings; from a lawyer’s office to an upscale bar these environments and their patrons are visibly and almost aggressively anti-poor.

– The wider geopolitical context appears to work to similar effect with the prior point registered. It’s no mistake that Trump can be glimpsed in an early scene, with his startling remarks threatening North Korea’s nuclear annihilation occurring at the time of production and no doubt easily remembered upon release. Both in film and without it seems unlikely that this inclusion is not intended to achieve within viewer and character alike a reminder of the fragile state of the peninsula and life upon it, even as the content of Trump’s remarks in the clips featured within the film underscore the underlying themes of class existence, the precarious labor demanded of the poor, and the games of the rich.

– Commentary on the film is interesting for how, in similarly focusing on the question of class, it puts special critical emphasis upon the protagonist from the lower stratum—which is to say Jong-su. This is understandable, it is of course his perspective that occupies the film almost entirely, yet so often writing or discussion of the film and this character in particular vanishes the details of his class existence in taking upon itself the easy coherence this perspective and the mannerisms that make it up offer. The analysis is regularly unsympathetic to a character developed as a result of a startingly degree of empathy toward the state of this kind of life (i.e. the experiences of legal injustice, itinerant work, humiliating job interviews, obnoxious familial acquaintances, parental abuse and abandonment etc.).

– In an episode of Media Roots Radio from sometime within the last year (I can’t remember the episode but it’s in the back catalogue somewhere), Abby Martin unpacked the relationship between the children of South Korea’s wealthy elites and the U.S.. The generation in question is one that has little relationship to Korea and its people, isolated at once by their wealth as well as the geography of their education, the vast majority of which takes place in the U.S. itself prior to a return to Korea to see these young people in all likelihood take up positions in large firms that do business with American corporations. Should there be some truth or accuracy to such an analysis it is one that makes great sense of the dynamics that underpin the film’s ‘Gatsby’, appropriately played by a Korean American and known only by an English name.

– In this way, the viewer’s own biases and presuppositions enter directly into analysis—much as some suggest that this may be indeed a behavior of chief protagonist Jong-su himself, owing to there being no apparent absolute certainty that Ben is a serial killer. It is deeply curious that viewers are unreflective with regard to such a reaction, wherein class preferentialization becomes so readily apparent: a strange and troubling member of the highest stratum of Korean society, that much like any elite class is defined by its excesses, receives sympathy because excess is an inherent and unremarkable characteristic of his lifestyle; while a character skirting poverty receives judgement and suspicion for being unable to function within the society that has so alienated them and daring to some excess at all.

“… like simultaneous existence.” There’s a curious mirroring between Ben and Jong-su, for both of whom the world is a mystery or enigma in their own distinctive ways. For Ben, owing perhaps in part to the wealth implicit in his upbringing, it is that he has missed emotions fundamental to existence, such as tears or jealousy; while Jong-su appears to have been so battered by abuse, injustice, and abandonment that he can barely rationalize his place in the world or stand up under the weight of it all. In this way, a peculiar blankness appears to typify and overtake the characters, providing a simultaneity in the posture of both to the world, albeit borne of wholly dissimilar life experiences.

– Hae-mi is, of course, the character around whom the film’s metaphorical flourishes orbit and movingly so, from ideas of hunger, sunlight, and greenhouses. It’s in the context of her precarious social position, of course, that added power is found—one in which there is no place for women and uninvestigated and dismissed disappearances threaten those in her line of work. The audience is introduced to her character living in a small apartment that experiences sunlight on the rarest occasion and striving in her daily life for meaning, fulfilment, and growth that she is otherwise unable to find in her home country and which she seeks by traveling to Kenya. Yet, the epiphany she relays to Ben and Jong-su is that, standing before a sunset with her Great Hunger, eyes filled with tears, she thought herself at the end of the world wishing to vanish. It’s a description that replays at Jong-su’s home as she dances in front of another sunset, succumbing to tears yet again, at the border of a state threatened with the end of both their and her own world—all this while Miles Davis’ ‘Générique’ from Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) plays over the scene. The character is the most tragic nexus of themes and ideas, struggling under the burden of her place in society (i.e. the absence of friends or family, extreme credit card debt, shaky employment, and the inability to realize her desires in any deep or abiding sense) to sit in the light as another scouts for an isolated, dilapidated greenhouse to burn.

“Don't think there is a tangerine here. Just forget that there isn't one.” It’s hard not to be overcome with the notion that here the film is making, in a roundabout manner, a comment on the presence of MacGuffins or mysteries, a la the noir or the thriller, within itself. Indeed, the film puts all necessary information on the table regarding its characters, their class positions, desires, and motivations; yet it is organised to reiterate this basic instruction to the viewer: “forget that there isn’t”—truly any ambiguity at all. Losing one’s self to the desire for mystery, in structure and text, becomes the key because, as Hae-mi also says, “[t]he important thing is to think you really want one. Then your mouth will water, and it'll really taste good.” Yet, what Lee Chang-dong appears to be doing is gaming the viewer and the auto-reflexive impulse to find Hitchcockian mystery and co-implication in a story where none exists. Indeed, if one had to draw Hitchcockian coordinates as some have, this isn’t Vertigo or Rear Window, it’s Psycho—only this time swathes of viewers sided with Norman Bates because they wanted to forget, salivate, and enjoy the taste of their self-imposed ambiguity; all the while Hae-mi is dead and Jong-su lost someone he loves because a rich kid got jealous and wanted to “play”.