A burning desire for Korean Cinema

Silhouette of boy staring an images of fire and burning

There are layers to Lee Chang-Dong’s 2018 film ‘Burning’. So much takes place and yet very little really happens. It’s an appreciation of the minute, an exercise in ambiguous and interpretive storytelling, and a character study about loneliness.

The film circles around about three young Koreans, all in their own way disillusioned. The kind you would read about in a great 20th Century American novel. None of them are interested in working traditional jobs, all appear lost and wandering, in search of something deeper.

But this isn’t a story about kinship. This story is filled with melancholy, loneliness, distrust, and even paranoia.

This film is a tapestry of emotion, told through intentionally ambiguous gaps of information. The way these characters’ stories unfold leave a lot open to interpretation. More than we might conventionally be familiar with. So much so, that you find yourself projecting, recalling own experiences, connecting dots that may only appear to you, and jumping to conclusions.

The only help we get is seeing the world through the eyes of lead character Jong-Su. But he is no help, he is just as hopelessly misinformed as us. In fact, worse, he’s a writer. He may be even more dangerously imaginative than we are…

Three main characters in Lee Chang-Dong's mysterious film 'Burning'

Jong-Su is a directionless guy with a wandering mind. He’s done his military training, he’s finished his degree, he wants to be a writer. He doesn’t have a job; so, he’s looking after the family home while his dad is on trial for assaulting a man in the village. His mother left when he was young, so there is only him to look after things now. He runs into Hae-Mi, a girl from his childhood, she has changed since they knew each other as kids. She’s pretty now.

Hae-Mi is working as a promo girl. She doesn’t earn much but it’s enough to rent a dingy apartment and save for a trip to Africa. She bumps into Jong-Su and asks him to look after her cat while she’s away. When she returns home her thoughts are consumed by a tribal dance she witnessed on her trip. A dance about small hunger and big hunger, where food and life are almost symbiotic. Hae-Mi is desperately lonely, she cries often, and suffers bouts of hysteria. What else happened on her trip? She met Ben.

Ben is mysterious and charismatic. He is slightly older, drives a Porsche, has a nice apartment, he enjoys the finer things in life, yet doesn’t appear to work. He tells Jong-Su he doesn’t see the difference between work and play, he only does things that are fun. He has hedonistic tendencies. He reveals that, sometimes, he burns greenhouses. He justifies this as if it is the natural order of the world, like the rain falling. Jong-Su says he is Gatsby. Jong-Su can’t decide whether he’s jealous of Ben or looks up to him.

Steven Yeun in a cold snowy scene from the movie Burning

There is a pale ambiguity and melancholia that runs through this film. A deliberate blankness. In the detail of the characters and in their relationships to each other. They tread a fine line between friends and strangers. it is almost painful to witness this disparateness, to see there is so much they don’t know about each other. This ambiguity also suggests something deeper, something brooding, perhaps something sinister.

This feeling instils distrust, you can’t quite get a grasp of who these characters really are. You start to like them, then you remember that perhaps you shouldn’t. A part of you questions them, like you would a stranger. You don’t really know these people.

I’ve never seen something with such ambiguous, open-ended writing. It’s so open to interpretation that I find myself forgoing the slim pieces of concrete evidence to pull on the ambiguous threads. Much like Jong-Su, I am desperate to find some significance. Like a bad detective caught up in his own prejudice, I follow the red herrings and avoid the mundane, for a chance to find something deeper. 

But maybe this isn’t a deep movie. Maybe it’s just about ordinary people, trying their best not to live ordinary lives. Perhaps, like life, there isn’t much significance. Sometimes there aren’t any answers. Just a feeling of inconclusiveness. 

Then it hits you. There was something brewing, you just didn’t see the signs. You read the wrong code; even a great detective would have fallen victim.

Jeon Jong-seo pointing to her head in the movie Burning

Lee Chang-Dong doesn’t necessarily lead you down a rabbit hole, he lets you wander in yourself. He opens a million doors, and you take the ones that seem interesting, the ones that seem significant to you.

In the film Jong-Su reads William Faulkner. He tells us, “Something about his words make me feel the story is about me.”

I think Lee Chang-Dong achieves the same in his film. He makes the story so real and so open to interpretation that you feel compelled to fill in the gaps with your own expectations. 

He knows that as movie goers we are in search of significance, like Jong-Su we love a good story. He knows we have these expectations. So completely subverts them and hits us with what was probably the most likely conclusion.

This isn’t a twisty detective film, there’s a real appreciation of subtlety. It paints a picture of melancholy and suffering, but with a mysterious and sinister undercurrent. It almost flirts with the potential for surrealism but it never crosses the line. It remains totally natural. Besides a few dramatic moments, nothing much happens. It just unfolds like a day in the life. 

This film didn’t hit me until a few hours after I’d finished watching, but then it was like a flood. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much detail there is wrapped up in what felt at the time like a fairly simple tale.

I think one sign of a good film is that it lingers long after it’s over. Maybe the sign of a great movie is that it takes a while to really sink in.

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