Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Chang-dong Lee‘s Burning is South Korea’s submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film. In a year already decorated with a Foreign Language category likely to rival its Best Picture counterpart, Lee’s film serves as a demonstration of the already rich cinematic revolution within South Korea’s New Wave. More a jumping-off point than adaption of Haruki Murakami’s short story, “Burning Barns” (also a riff on Faulkner’s story of the same name), Burning, an intriguing dramatic mystery that rarely bequeaths answers, usurps the male gaze and dichotomy between the well-meaning creep and madman.
The film, initially, circles around two characters, Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) and Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon). Jong-su, a recent college graduate, bumps into Hae-mi at a raffle. Hae-mi works as “eye candy,” a model advertising this street raffle. A childhood friend, initially, Jong-su doesn’t recognize her. He also can’t remember that he once called her “ugly” when they were kids. But that “ugly” tag has changed, as she’s not that little girl anymore.
The two rendezvous at her apartment, under the guise of Jong-su watching her cat, Boil, while she’s away in Africa. The two make love before she leaves for her trip. However, when returning, Hae-mi arrives with what looks like a boyfriend. Being the only two Koreans alone in an African airport, she becomes entangled with Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong-su later calls him the Great Gatsby because of his unexplained wealth and good looks, casting a mysterious and alluring spell on the women around him. This spell, much to Jong-su’s chagrin, appears to have hooked Hae-mi.
Burning purposely subjects women to a male gaze, sexualizing and relegating them to playthings and distractions. Astutely twisting the male gaze, we are aligned not to judge the woman at the center, but the two men. Jong-su plays the nice guy. Living near shouting distance from the DMZ, his easy temperament bellies a man of jealousy, seething rage, desire, and desperation. He unconsciously views Hae-mi as passive property, disinterested in her every aspect except her body. Having not paid attention to her until she became sexualized, Jong-su may think himself the better man, but commits the same sins of any other prowling male.
On other hand, Ben views Hae-mi as an object of amusement. While Jong-su dispassionately listens to her, Ben condescends. Here, Yeun epitomizes the ‘guy she told you not to worry about’ meme. He plays his character coolly and smugly, a man who’s spent his life with the upper hand, yet friendly. Still, Ben never sees Hae-mi as a person. Instead, Ben and Jong-su represent two types of toxic masculinity (both just as detrimental).
Encapsulating their toxic gaze, Hae-mi, while visiting Jong-su, strips in front of him and Ben. She performs an erotic dance in the blue dusk of
Kyung-pyo Hong‘s beautiful cinematography, to the sounds of Miles Davis’ suave and free horn playing. In a previous scene, Hae-mi describes the dance of Little and Great Hunger performed in Africa. Little Hunger craves food, while Great Hunger yearns for a meaning to life. As she performs a topless Great Hunger dance, through her tribal gestures, in the shadows of the DMZ, Hae-mi externalizes a plea for meaning not given by these men, her culture, her body, or her surroundings. She pleads to be seen as who she actually is. Joen as Hae-mi breathes this vibrant and misunderstood woman with a livelihood for self-actualization that the men around her lack.
Burning, pardon the pun, is a slow-burn. However, the patience required makes for worthwhile discoveries and character development. Jong-su lives a family life in shambles, having a mother who abandoned him when he was young, and a stubborn indifferent father standing trial for battery and assault. Jong-su’s treatment of women, as objects to be possessed before they can leave, can be traced to his mother’s abandonment. In fact, when his mother left him, his father forced Jong-su to burn her clothes. Yoo simply stuns in this role.
Ben also burns objects. In his case, they’re abandoned greenhouses. Ben finds these greenhouses to be useless fixtures waiting to be erased without fanfare. Later, when Hae-mi goes missing without a trace, Jong-su stalks Ben. He “casually” bumps into Ben at a coffee shop, church, even staking out his apartment. Ben, aware of Jong-su following him, condescendingly entertains him (even inviting Jong-su to his place). Jong-su, believing him to be a serial killer, finds the burning greenhouses story to be a metaphor for the women Ben has murdered.
Lee gives us clues of Ben’s possible murders. Jong-su discovers Hae-mi’s watch in his bathroom, along with several other “trophies” of past girlfriends. Ben also mysteriously has a new cat, a stray, while the one that occupied Hae-mi’s apartment has disappeared. In one scene, the cat runs away and Jong-su captures the cat by calling out “Boil.” Whether that is the cat’s name is unknown. Lee won’t grant us such easy access to the mysteries of his screenplay.
Instead, Lee engineers an ending that acts as sexual male catharsis. Jong-su finds some closure, even if we don’t. The film, meant to be revisited, asks us to piece together the clues, fully knowing the clues won’t help us. That can be frustrating, purely enveloping, or both. Here, it’s both. Burning in 148 minutes demonstrates an exciting future to cinema, a future emerging from Korea, a future that’s been Korea’s present for a while, even if the West is just taking notice. Lee encapsulates those possibilities in conjunction with a timely piece of art that reflects our current cultural wrestling in a fiery usurpation of gender representation.