On the face of it, Burning may be a hard sell. A two and a half hour slow burning mystery which leaves more loose ends than it ties up is not going to be everybody’s jar of kimchi. Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story called Barn Burning the film follows seeming loner and aspiring young novelist Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) and the disappearance of the object of his affections Hae-Mi (Jong-seo Jun) who initially returns from a trip abroad with her new friend ‘Ben’ (Steven Yeun). The more Jong-Su learns about the mysterious, suave and sophisticated Ben, the more suspicious Hae-Mi’s disappearance seems.
Make no mistake, there is a definite end to the narrative. Yet part of the charm of this film is that several different interpretations of the narrative work coherently and concurrently.
Burning is one of those films which made me question everything I’d just seen. It made me want to immediately watch it again with the knowledge I’d gained by the end to see how my perception of the preceeding events had been altered. This aspect is not unlike many films I’ve seen (and reviewed) over the last 12 months. Films such as Cure (1997), Stay (2005) and Hold the Dark (2018) all contained a narrative ambiguity with endings impactful enough for me to at least spend time mulling over everything I’d just seen.
Yet the genius of Burning (2018) is that there is nothing ambiguous about its narrative at all. More to the point, everything we see is from the point of view of a single character and there is no sense that anything has been redacted from this point of view. All our protagonist’s actions make complete sense from beginning to end based on his (and indeed our) experience and yet looking back, it is as easy to read him as a jealous and jilted Sociopath as it is to read him as a justified avenging hero.
All of this is achieved without the short cut of expositional dialogue or internal monologue as Director Chang-dong Lee allows the cinematography to do most of the ‘talking’. It’s true that this method contributes to the two and a half hour runtime, which is perhaps the only negative I can offer and also a factor which will limit its audience regardless of how highly it is praised. This is not to say there isn’t any dialogue but the interactions seem to be at once believable, metaphorical and opaque, serving more as a means to further isolate our everyman hero (or villain) than to fill in any gaps in the audience’s understanding of the narrative.
Spoilers to follow
It’s isolation which pervades the screen in Burning. It wasn’t long after the film’s conclusion that I began to draw parallels with Taxi Driver (1976). While Scorcese’s classic doesn’t quite end on its climax in the way that Chang-dong Lee’s does, the structure of ‘disquiet, disquiet, disquiet…BANG!’ is eerily present in both as well as a desperate isolation. Yet while DeNiro’s Travis Bickle noticeably unravels before our eyes, Lee Jong-su’s social awkwardness surfaces only through his inability to ask direct and seemingly obvious questions of the characters around him. This is not a frustration I found as a viewer as much as a realistic portrayal of how the majority of people interact in real life, serving to further Jong-su’s everyman credentials. It is also quite telling that Hae-mi feels isolated to the point that she expresses a desire to simply disappear.
Speaking of the film ending on its climax, the climax itself is as shocking as it is congruous with everything that’s come before it. It’s evidence of the tightrope the narrative has been walking for its entire runtime and is the key to the alternative perspective(s) on everything that’s come before. The final scene is also mirrors many of the visual metaphors and motifs throughout the film which is a delight to anyone who’s been paying attention to remember any and all seemingly throwaway shots or remarks. I haven’t yet watched Burning a second time all the way through however I gleefully patted myself on the back noticing the following:
Rather than seeing the car explode into flames, we see initially only a refraction of the light from the frames in the Van / on Jong Su’s face as he is driving away, echoing the sunlight which comes in only at a certain time and for a short while into Hae-mi’s tiny apartment.
Jong-su’s own history of burning things is referenced through dialogue (his father made him burn his mother’s clothes after she left) and visually, as he not only seemingly absent-mindedly starts and then stops burning a barn he is inspecting. One of the few flashbacks or dream sequences (the film doesn’t tell us which) is of what must be Jong-su standing in front of a burning barn. This may indicate Ben is a figment of Jong-su’s imagination. Whatever the case, references in dialogue to The Great Gatsby are certainly a clue that we may have an ‘unreliable narrator’ on our hands.
The fact that Jong-su removes all of his clothes (ostensibly to burn the evidence of his connection to the crime scene) echoes his admonishment of Hae-mi for exposing her breasts when in the shared company of Ben. It also references the conversation Jong-su has with Hae-mi’s coworker in which she emphasises the plight of women who are criticised for wearing clothes which are “too revealing” as well as being criticised for “dressing down”. This seems to indicate that Jong-su will be even further isolated after his final violent act.
A feminist take on toxic masculinity? The world as seen through the eyes of a Sociopath? Or just a straight-forward revenge thriller? The film seems to offer so many levels of interpretation and yet works from a narrative perspective on all of them. These are just some of the reasons that Burning is instantly one of my all time favourite films.