Burning by Lee Chang dong : A Captivating Yet Haunting Work of Art
Burning by Lee Chang-dong tells the story of Jong-su, a part-time worker, bumps into Hae-mi while delivering, who used to live in the same neighborhood. Hae-mi asks him to look after her cat while she’s on a trip to Africa. When Hae-mi comes back, she introduces Ben, a mysterious guy she met in Africa, to Jong-su. One day, Ben visits Jong-su’s with Hae-mi and confesses his own secret hobby.
A Sneak Peek Into “Burning”
Lee Jong-Su, who is currently an aspiring novelist, performs odd jobs in Paju. One day when Jong-su was just finishing work, he ran into Shin Hae-mi who claimed that she was a childhood neighbor and a classmate of Jong-su. It being more than a decade since they saw each other, Jong-su had a hard time trying to recall who Hae-mi was. However, as they continue to talk more and started warming up to each other, Jong-su did remember who Hae-Mi was and admitted that they were childhood neighbors.
In their easy banter, Hae-mi jokingly told Jong-su that he used to call her ugly when they were kids. Leading her to the decision to have plastic surgery done on herself. To that, Jong-su only smiled awkwardly and said nothing.
Later, Hae-mi –– in the candid and lively way that is Hae-mi –– told him that she has been planning and saving for her upcoming trip to Africa. Claiming that she was interested to find out more about “little hunger” and “big hunger”. Little Hunger, Hae-mi explained, is when someone is physically hungry. Great Hunger however, is when a person yearns for the bigger answers, like the meaning of life.
Lee Jong-su, who constantly seems distracted and absentminded just gave Hae-mi a small awkward smile in a way only he can manage. At this point, maybe he was already smitten by Hae-mi or it could be that he was astounded by the amount of “life” and “spirit for adventure” that Hae-mi seems to project, or maybe he truly was just as absentminded within and without. Nobody really knows the real answer.
And with that, Hae-mi asks the simple Jong-su for a favor : to feed her cat while she’s gone. They head up to her apartment to meet the cat that Hae-mi named Boil, but alas, the elusive cat seems to not be too keen on making new friends and meeting strangers. As their conversation continues, things began to heat up between the two and they ended up sharing more than just stories.
In the period where Hae-mi travels to Africa, smitten Jong-su dutifully fulfills his promise of feeding her cat, even though throughout the time where Hae-mi was gone, Boil never once showed her face to Jong-su.
As most people who are infatuated and in love, Jong-su was in a constant state of missing her, thinking of her, or fantasizing about her. It was until one day where Hae-mi calls him, asking him to pick her up at the airport when she finally returns to South Korea. Of course, Jong-su instantly agrees, happy and excited that he finally got to see her again after so long being apart.
Whatever plans Jong-su had in mind while he was on the way to the airport to pick up Hae-mi however, all went to the gutter when he sees Hae-mi arriving back to South Korea with a guy in tow, called Ben.
3 Words to Sum Up Burning
Intense, Complex, Haunting
I am sure that a lot of movie fanatics out there has probably heard a lot about this infamous movie by Lee Chang-dong. And as always, your girl has again, arrived –– fashionably–– late into the hype. Despite that however, I am actually glad that I waited until know to watch Burning as I believe, after sitting through a quite intense and gripping 2 hours of my life, the viewers has to be in the right mindset to really appreciate, grasp, and truly capture the story and essence of what this movie was all about.
To easily summarize what this movie was about, I would say that it was a lot like an onion. There are so many different layers to it and so many different ways that the viewers could interpret it that gives out contrasting outcome when you view it from another POV.
From the very beginning, I had a hard time trying to pin down what it is exactly that the film was about. Was it mystery? Thriller? Romance? I had no idea. The plot itself was so loose that it seems as if it could go any different direction. It wasn’t until I was 3/4 through the movie that I started being able to link things in the movie together. However even then, it still seemed as if I was just understanding the very top layer of the movie.
Burning as a whole, was a very metaphoric heavy movie. For someone like Lee Jong-su, I am pretty sure that even the way the characters breathe are calculated and have their own meaning. With that said, Burning is a very viewer oriented movie, meaning that different people take away different things after watching Burning. Is that a good thing, or is it bad, is for us to judge and decide.
ALLEGED PROTAGONIST LEE JONG-SU
The entire movie was seen and narrated from the point of view of our writer wanna-be. For me personally, Lee Jong-su seems like someone who’s very absentminded and seems to just let things come as they may. Despite him saying that he aspire to be a writer, there is barely any effort put into that desire. Throughout the movie, the only time where we can see any real emotions coming from him was when it comes down to Hae-mi.
When it’s about that girl, it seems like he feels a plethora of emotions from love, yearning, desire, and worry. The new man that she introduces Jong-su to after she came back from Africa, Ben, seems to be the antagonist in this story.
Ben is rich although he won’t disclose what he does, good looking, has no problem getting girls, and has a beautiful sports car that turn heads. Needless to say, he is everything that Jong-su isn’t. And maybe also because of that, Jong-su was jealous. Or it could be because just like all the other girls out there, Hae-mi too, flocked to Ben with moth to flame.
Nobody knows. The only thing we know is that in Jong-su’s eyes, Ben is viewed as the antagonist and the things that happen as the plot thickens continues to verify Jong-su’s belief of what Ben might be, which probably snowballed into what Jong-su did in the end.
THE GIRL WHO LONGS TO DISAPPEAR
You know who she reminds me of? The woman in The Great Gatsby. Even watching from afar, one can tell very easily and quickly that Hae-mi was not something than you can catch and hold on to. She gives me the image of a flighty bird, who seems to always want to fly away from one place to another, never really settling.
Which is, by all means, not a bad things of course. However, for someone like Jong-su who seems to put her on a pedestal and was so infatuated with her to the point of obsession, I feel like having her in his life was very toxic for him and his simple lifestyle. Maybe Hae-mi to Jong-su, is similar to the green light that Gatsby yearn to have. 2
In mid-movie when she suddenly disappeared with no trace or reason, there are a lot of theories floating around in my head. And of course, the first thing that came to mind was the fact that she was killed by Ben. And while there were a lot of theories pointing towards that direction, there are also another theory where she was truly serious about finding the “Big Hunger” and could have just upped and gone with no rhyme or reason.
There are a lot of other theories floating around, for example those thinking that she could be sold into slavery, or the likes. Alas, it boils down to only one answer however : no one knows.
SOCIOPATHIC GREAT GATSBY?
To be honest, I have no idea how to pin Ben down. For one, he might be a serial killer for all we know and all our theories about him killing Hae-Mi was correct, but then again, he also could just be an innocent civilian who just happens to live life mysteriously.
Nobody was sure who Ben was other than he enjoys burning greenhouses every two months, and that this man is wealthy. He smokes weed sometimes, drives fast cars, and hangout with other wealthy people. Sure, he does smile that unsettling smile of his every now and then. Not to mention his odd way of speaking and how he seems to be bored of the conversation topic fairly quickly.
But does that all account to him being the killer of Hae-mi?
Burning and Metaphors
Truthfully, I was quite confused and lost after I watched the movie. For me –– like Jung-so –– it was very obvious that Ben was the bad guy who killed off Hae-mi. But then I googled up some theories on the internet and read some of them, only to realize that I might be wrong after all.
I mean, how reliable is our protagonist? Just how sure am I that he doesn’t have some kind of delusional episodes where he made all the bad things about Ben up just because he “stole” Hae-mi from Jong-su.
That aside, this movie seems to be brushing up a lot on things such as social inequality, lust and desire, of how the rich are slowly killing of any type of creativity, not to mention how intimidated the poor and uneducated feels towards the rich and educated.
Burning by Lee Jong-su was not something that one would watch to unwind for the night –– at least I wouldn’t –– as it’s a little heavy and one would have to pay a lot of attention to details to really catch the clues that are given throughout the movie.
With that said, despite it being hard for me to understand or the fact that I’m confused about where the movie is going for a good half of the movie, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Burning is a little slow-paced, so if you’re going into this movie thinking about car chases, stalking and killing, better readjust your expectations again as to not be disappointed.
I think just like Parasite by Bong Joon-ho, Burning also touches on a lot of societal problems that the younger generations or the people who are in need are facing, especially in South Korea. As far as movie goes, Burning is definitely unique in the way it’s executed, from the actors and actresses, the storyline, down to the eerily sad yet cinematic shots and soundtracks.