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Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is really two films, or it might be more accurate to say that it consists of the same film twice over. It splits neatly down the middle, seeming to end and then begin again. It tells fundamentally the same story a second time, only with a new plot for round two. This bifurcated structure could signify a number of things. Is it the distinction between the desired truth and actual reality? Does it represent a psychological break in the main character? Does it reinforce the film’s binary fixations: man and woman, introvert and extrovert, popular and ostracized? I was fascinated by how cleanly the film snaps in two, and how each half calls backward and forward to comment on the other. Burning is a film in constant conversation with itself, a screen dialectic.
The first half adopts the perspective of main character Jong-su, a frustrated depressive whose troubled childhood gave way to a dead-end adulthood. A chance encounter with childhood friend Hae-mi does little to liven his spirits, though they strike up a sexual relationship. Jong-su likes Hae-mi, though he has as little respect for her as anyone else. When Hae-mi leaves on a trip for Africa, she returns with a new friend, Ben, with whom she bonded during a traumatic experience. Jong-su is immediately distrustful of the confident Ben. His outgoing and personable nature shine a light on Jong-su’s own personality defects. One night, the two share a smoke and Ben reveals that he has a special hobby: Every few months, he finds an abandoned greenhouse and burns it to the ground. He leaves telling Jong-su that he’s chosen his next target, one very close to Jong-su’s home. The next morning, Hae-mi disappears.
It’s after that nighttime conversation that the split happens. The film builds up Ben through Jong-su’s eyes, as someone eminently untrustworthy and surely hiding something. Steven Yeun wonderfully plays up Ben’s likable affectations as sinister, but so subtly that only Jong-su (and the audience) seem to notice. When he reveals his penchant for arson, it comes not as surprise but confirmation. Jong-su seems terrified of Ben in the moment, but there’s a glimmer of vindication behind the fear.
The triumph doesn’t last, though, as Hae-mi vanishes and Jong-su receives a bizarre phone call from her where he hears only a series of ominous noises, ending with the disturbingly suggestive sound of a zipper. When he goes to her apartment, the code she gave him no longer works. When he manages to get inside, it looks completely different. The cat she asked him to feed doesn’t seem to exist. Jong-su’s first instinct? Hunting down Ben.
It’s in the second half that Burning calls into question the reliability of Jong-su’s perspective in the first half. How much of his relationship with Hae-mi was imagined? How much of his view of Ben is wishful thinking, borne of a desire to have the moral high ground on a guy whose popularity he resents? As the film unravels and Jong-su finds clues to Hae-mi’s disappearance, we can’t help but wonder if the pieces he’s putting together are pieces at all, or if he’s merely trying to force disparate details together to avoid having to confront his own relationship failures and personality defects.
Here, Burning reframes the dynamics of film noir (the vanishing lady, the dogged detective, the scummy high-class villain) in a way that could have so easily been corny or eye-roll-inducing. Lee doesn’t comment on the genre so much as he iterates on it, paying respect to his predecessors while using the space they created to tell his own story. It’s not entirely new, plenty of noir was self-reflexive in similar ways. Still, it’s quite well-executed. Hae-mi (the vanishing lady) is self-consciously an object for Jong-su’s (the dogged detective) motivated action. She is no less a fully-fledged character than anyone else, which makes her transformation into plot device deliberately uncomfortable. Jong-su is motivated less by a desire to rescue her for her own sake than by a vague obsession with her as a stand-in for his undefined emotional traumas.
And Ben (the scummy high-class villain) is only framed as such through the unreliable eyes of Jong-su. When he tells Jong-su of his hobby, it comes after Jong-su admits to being forced by his father to burn his mother’s possessions after she left them. It’s clear that the shame and guilt of this event has haunted him for his whole adult life. Did Ben really admit to an even worse crime of arson, or did Jong-su want to hear him say that he had done something worse? As the “evidence” piled up in the run-up to the film’s horrific climax, I continued to find it hard to have faith anything Jong-su was thinking.
In leaving Jong-su’s perspective for the second half, Burning recontextualizes its first part, slowly eroding whatever trust and sympathy you had for its central character. I had little to begin with (Jong-su isn’t a likable character by any means) but I was nevertheless intrigued by how Lee unravels his point of view at such a deliberate pace. By the end, it’s still unclear whether Jong-su is motivated by reality or by an imagined threat. Burning lives in that ambiguity, but it also asks a question: If you can’t trust Jong-su, are there really two sides to this story?