Slow-burning appears to be the favored, pun-based adjective amongst critics to describe South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s sixth film, Burning (2017). The 148-minute work is better described as a bubbling pot of water, whose gentle simmer never quite reaches its boiling point, and beneath it, a constant, but subdued flame.
Burning opens with beautiful camerawork, giving us furtive glimpses of Seoul as we follow Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a dopey, boyish would-be-novelist and sometimes farmhand, as he wanders through the urban mass. Jong-su stops at a discount shop where a voice unconvincingly beckons potential customers to enter a raffle. He eyes two scantily clad girls who don’t even feign enthusiasm as they run through a dance routine. Although Jong-su doesn’t recognize her, one of the performers, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo in her debut role) recognizes him as a former neighbor and classmate from Paju, a district north of Seoul bordering North Korea. Hae-mi recounts how he always taunted her about her looks and cynically concedes that he might not recognize her because of her plastic surgery. She invites him to dinner and asks if he thinks, now, that she is attractive. Their exchange epitomizes the stance Burning takes on contemporary, urban South Korea: rather than delving into a series of haggard criticisms of soulless materialism forged by US-backed techno-capitalism (1), it explores a world where a lack of confidence and opportunity (economic, self, sexual, etc.) generates bitterness and envy and muddle motives.
[Warning: spoilers ahead]
Actress Jeon Jong-seo as Hae-mi in Burning. Image credit: Thunderbird Releasing
At dinner, Hae-mi tells Jong-su about her plans to travel to Africa, something she has been saving for and is finally ready to undertake. She asks him if he will take care of her cat, and with obvious sexual double-entendres aside, they have sex in her small apartment a few days later. When she returns to Korea, however, what Jong-su imagined as a budding romance is cut short. She is accompanied by a new friend: Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy, confident bachelor with a Porsche, a sleek apartment in Gangnam, and no discernable job. Jong-su points out to Hae-mi during a dinner (specifically of pasta, flexing West-attuned class status) at Ben’s place that he is a Gatsby figure, or rather this transforms him into one in the mind of Jong-su, thereby completing a love triangle that only exists in his head.
Later in the film, the class humiliation Jong-su feels is palpable when Hae-mi and Ben unexpectedly visit him at his father’s farm. He quickly changes out of his cow dung-covered work clothes upon seeing the Porsche creep up the driveway. Ben, suave as ever, pulls out a bottle of wine, a platter of take-away food, and a joint to share. He lights up and puts Miles Davis’ Générique on his car stereo, signaling a line of connection to the prominence of jazz in the works of Haruki Murakami, whose short story “Barn Burning” is the source material for the film.
In the following visually stunning scene that plays out, Hae-mi strips to the waist and dances in the fading light of the setting sun; this scene allegedly had to be filmed over as the light was correct for merely a few minutes each day. After she passes out on the couch inside, Ben and Jong-su remain in the twilight in front of the house, where Ben reveals his secret hobby: arson. He tells Jong-su that he burns down a greenhouse every two months and for his next arson attack, has decided to set fire to the one nearby (he was in the area for a scouting trip). In the weeks after Ben’s revelation, Jong-su turns this conversation over and over in his head and anxiously monitors the neighboring greenhouses. Against this backdrop, the last Jong-su hears from Hae-mi is an ambiguous, cut-off phone call. Jong-su obsesses over Ben’s hobby and it becomes a sign, coincidence, or potential location of ulterior motive and hidden meaning for Hae-mi’s disappearance from both his and Ben’s lives.
Although Burning has the trappings of a thriller, and Yeun does an excellent job of breathing fresh terror into the respectability, condescension, and power of the wealthy playboy character, spectators who believe that Hae-mi was murdered by Ben have been sucked in to the same heuristic failure as Jong-su. Driven by his prejudiced belief, Jong-su stalks Ben, assembling more clues and damning evidence, but all of which can all be explained in alternate ways. Most importantly, Jong-su is not interested in reserving impartial judgement; his mind is clouded by multiple layers of long-standing masculine (sexist) resentment and class anger that convince him to violently avenge Hae-mi’s supposed death, and while class reflects his anger (2), his obsession with revenge is closer to that of a spurned lover: murdering Ben is something like femicide by proxy. The telling instance that dispels any doubt as to whether Ben did or did not murder Hae-mi comes in the final, sumptuously-shot scene. Jong-su arranges a meeting with Ben in a remote location to murder him. When they both get out of their cars, Ben asks him where Hae-mi is, having been promised she’d be there. If he had murdered her, he wouldn’t ask such an ingenuous question, and moreover, wouldn’t have agreed to come.
Although Lee ties himself to Murakami, the film is more akin to a short story by William Faulkner, a work that inspired Murakami’s identically named “Barn Burning.” In Faulkner’s story, set in the southern United States, a rural family struggles against the systemic nature of class binds. In the same way, many reviewers of Burning see Jong-su and Ben as foils demonstrating the intense inequality of contemporary South Korea. They are not necessarily wrong. Ben is a wealthy Seoul socialite who through his taste (3) and his Anglophone name represents himself as a man of the world, the kind of globalized upper-class person of a certain persuasion who can travel to Africa in order to find themselves. He is the kind of person Hae-mi wants to be, or simply wants, at least according to what Jong-su perceives. Jong-su, on the other hand, is a perpetual outsider–a college educated, budding novelist who doesn’t fit into his macho father’s rural world–as well as a sensible working-class country boy out of his element in Seoul. This dichotomy in Jong-su’s personality and societal status allows him to hold others in disdain everywhere he goes. And this isn’t to say that he shouldn’t. After all, he is barely making ends meet and has to abandon his life in Seoul to return to take over the family farm while his father is in jail. Jong-su believes that he is condemned to live on the periphery of South Korean society, geographically, culturally, and economically (4).
The prevalence of purely class-based readings of the film by critics ignores Burning’s true revelation, that a culturally-specific, yet terrifyingly generic form of toxic masculinity produces such distorted readings of signs as Jong-su’s interpretation of Hae-mi’s disappearance. Hae-mi is completely left behind in class-based readings of the film, as well, forgotten. If one doesn’t notice that the narrative in the film is spun by Jong-su in his own head, and that the audience is presented with a series of truths, which are bent to encourage the same conclusion in order to reveal its flaws, then the film is nothing more than another iteration of the sexualized, sensationalized narratives of gendered violence that have found popularity in contemporary South Korea (5). The popularity of such films, where gendered violence serves no greater role than as a plot point or as a supporting narrative feature, resembles Weimar-era Germany’s interest in lustmord, or sexual murder: violent, sexualized female deaths driven by societal discontent, economic instability, and the precarious status of World War I veterans in the public sphere (6). Femicide itself is also directly tied to issues of class in, for example, Mexico, where female employment in maquiladoras brought them into the public sphere, leading to violent attempts by men to regulate their presence there (7). If we explain away the gender-driven violence in Burning as just a symptom of the anxiety of a working class man, who is terrified at the prospect of losing a romantic interest to a wealthier man, we become apologists and lazy viewers, ignoring clues and who really suffers: in both character development and in many real-life cases, the female love interest.
Class status is an inheritance, and for Jong-su, so are particular attitudes about women. Some of the most informative scenes in the film, undiscussed in most critical analyses, are the interactions between Jong-su and his father (or father’s presence), like when Jong-su is the sole onlooker during his father’s trial for assaulting a government official (8), or when he recounts the abuse he and his mother suffered. Jong-su goes on to perpetuate the same hypermasculine mentality while shielding it in kindness (though that may be a generous description), in his self representation as the prototypical “nice guy.” Indeed, Ben is a wealthy asshole, but at the very least, he is not a self-satisfying murderer in the guise of a heroic avenger.
Sources and Footnotes
(1) I.e. the backlash against the alleged crassness of the popularity of plastic surgery and homogeneity of beauty standards driven by massive entertainment and cosmetic markets.
(2) Especially given his lack of a job and the backdrop of youth unemployment in Korea.
(3) Ben takes Jong-su’s recommendation, though, and picks up a Korean translation of Faulkner.
(4) Having said that, his house lies so close to the central fissure, which defines the modern republic of South Korea in multiple ways, that he can hear the propaganda blaring over from the North, which might be haunting, the film notes, if it wasn’t so mundanely annoying.
(5) A note on South Korean lustmord by Chaeri: Although the hyper-violence of South Korean cinema is often pinpointed specifically, that the film industry and media in general has a globally shared obsession with depicting and sensationalizing violence against women, in many instances sexual, is no secret. Within the last few years, and especially with the Me-Too movement, the conversation around these violently gendered cinematic tropes has become more urgent, as it’s clear that a woman’s suffering is marginalized on screen to the point that a general ‘she’ serves only as a metaphor for centralized expressions of male power. In these generic films, the absence or controlled presence of the female body creates the spaces, the moods, the challenges a male protagonist must experience and overcome. In the localized context of South Korean cinema, there has also been an ongoing discussion and critique of how horror movies and action thrillers tend to violently punish outsiders and underprivileged members of society (i.e. women, homosexuals, etc.), and thus can be seen as conduits of mainstream patriarchal ideology. Unsurprisingly, there are routine correlations between certain filmmakers’ focus on misogynist and exploitative artistic content and their personal lives- take South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk, for example, whose work tends to portray, yet does not challenge, the misogyny of South Korean society, and who has received several allegations of sexual misconduct from female actresses and collaborators. However, there have been a number of South Korean films, in contrast to the works of Kim, that manipulate the filmic genre to give more freedom of expression, and ways for female characters to fight back against such established modes of objectification and domination. In my opinion, Burning does not make it a priority to give Hae-mi agency and subjectivity; it rather works with an opposite strategy, to highlight the ridiculousness of her absence, and to mock the self-assured linearity of the male-centered plot progression when ultimately, Jung-su could simply be wrong. The possibility that Jung-su’s perspective (and ego) can be completely false, is what undermines the gendered trust that we have been taught to assume in male heros in such films. See: Kim, Kyu Hyun. “Horror as Critique in Tell Me Something and Sympathy for Mr.Vengeance.” Chapter. In New Korean Cinema, edited by Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer, 106–16. Edinburgh University Press, 2005.
(6) Tatar, Maria. Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany. (Princeton University Press: 1997), 11-12.
(7) See: Livingston, Jessica. “Murder in Juarez: Gender, Sexual Violence, and the Global Assembly Line.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 25 no. 1, 2004, pp. 59-76. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/fro.2004.0034 or Rodríguez, Sergio González. The Femicide Machine. Semiotext(e) series. (MIT Press: 2012).
(8) A scene that harkens back to the plot of the Faulkner story.