“Sometimes, I burn down greenhouses." A line uttered by one of the primary characters of Burning, a line that at the moment seems strange, brought on by an evening of wine and weed, an admission of a small, victim-less crime. But as the film progresses, it haunts both us and the main character, it begins to unfold into multiple potential meanings, a metaphor that potentially references something heinous, a veiled confession of a dark crime. Burning as a film is just like this statement, it sits with you, it simmers, it seems to meander until the pieces start to come together, and the grand, unspoken narrative begins to subtly reveal itself. 2 and a half hours long with not a minute wasted is quite an accomplishment, one that I’ve been seeing more and more lately with films such as this that take the time to establish character and atmosphere, respecting the audience to come along on the journey and to pay attention to everything that’s going on. The pace is slow, but this grants it the ability to be steady, never quite relenting in the pressure that continues to build under the surface. The end result is both a narrative and visual masterpiece, never tripping up or leaning into tired cliches even once, never giving in to the temptation to be lazy. It is expertly and tightly constructed, and it is one of the best films released last year.
The film begins without much of a hint as to what the actual plot will be, our main character Lee Jong-su coincidentally meets up with a childhood friend, Shin Hae-mi (played extremely well by the first-time actress Jeon Jong-seo), and immediately they hit it off, with Hae-mi’s attraction toward Jong-su almost palpable. She leaves on a trip though and comes back with a new friend, Ben. At this point, the film turns into something of a love triangle, though Jong-su gives up almost immediately at having any chance with Hae-mi. It’s painful to watch at some points just because of how oblivious he is to her intense attraction towards him, and especially as their friendship begins to fall apart due to Jong-su’s jealousy of Ben. Their relationship begins to decay until the fateful evening when Ben and Hae-mi drive out of town to hang out with Jong-su, culminating in the final, bitter conversation that Jong-su and Hae-mi ever get to have. It is after this, that Hae-mi mysteriously disappears, and the film shifts underneath our feet. A mystery begins to unfold slowly and naturally, as Jong-su becomes more and more concerned about where Hae-mi is. The plot is difficult to discuss because the visual aspect of it is so key to the development of the story. We are never afforded a detailed look into Jong-su’s actual thought process, only being able to infer what he’s thinking through his actions. It is a spiral of desperation, suspicion, and anger that we as the audience go through with him. I think this is about as effective an attempt that I’ve seen of helping the audience feel what a character is feeling without making them say it out loud. Either way, it is the natural and steadily-paced progression of the plot that lends it its effectiveness and its impact. The masterful way that it unfolds allows every moment to be important, nothing is wasted and nothing is filler. The culmination of Burning is in contrast to all of this, a sudden, violent confrontation that brings to a point the tension of the entire film. It’s almost like a bomb goes off in the way it affects the viewer, it’s shocking and poignant all at the same time, and definitely one of my favorite movie endings out there. But to get to this ending, to really earn it, the movie needed to be constructed perfectly just the way it was.
To be as perfectly constructed as it was, it needed to lean into the things that make film such a powerful medium. Film is in so many ways combinations of many other mediums, since music, writing, composition, and acting are all involved in the creation of a final product. What directors sometimes forget though, is to truly make use of the visual aspect of film. Obviously, in every movie, you can see what’s going on, but sometimes directors and scriptwriters forget this and there are entire scenes where people just sit around telling each other how they feel, which often this isn’t what happens in real life. In real life, these things are shared through long gazes, awkward meetings, subtle body language, and so many other factors. People simply don’t monologue their feelings. So when a person is watching other people act, it’s about more than how well the actor can say their lines, it is about how the actor can embody that character, and do all the things that they would subconsciously do. A good actor doesn’t need dialogue to tell the audience everything they need to know, and a good director can do the same thing with the images they choose to show. There are far too many things to get into here, but I want to talk about one specific moment that will lead to spoiler territory. When Jong-su is first at Ben’s apartment, in the bathroom he finds a drawer full of random trinkets, mostly looking like they belong to women. Earrings, perhaps a bracelet, a brooch, things like that. Jong-su (and by extension, us) finds this strange, but he quickly leaves the bathroom so he won’t be suspected of snooping. Much later in the movie, after Jong-su has become suspicious that Ben is the cause of Hae-mi’s disappearance, he visits the apartment a second time, and in that drawer he finds Hae-mi’s watch. This is perhaps the strongest evidence that the film presents to suggest that Ben is the perpetrator, and not a single thing is ever said about it out loud. Jong-su doesn’t monologue about it, he doesn’t confront Ben about it, he doesn’t have a convenient friend to talk about it to. It is simply a video on a screen that we have to understand and interpret. Visual storytelling in this manner can be much more effective than spelling things out for the audience, because it diminishes its impact, and in the process can feel insulting.
It’s on this note that I feel Burning succeeds the most, in respecting its audience. I’m sure it’s happened to you at least once, when you’re watching a movie and you find yourself getting a bit bored because the main characters are all standing around talking, saying obvious things you already know or have already figured out. Most screenwriters and directors hate these moments, but find them necessary for two primary reasons. One, they aren’t skilled enough to write the movie so that it doesn’t require lengthy explanations every 30 minutes, and two, because they don’t think the audience is very smart. They have to have the characters say everything out loud because they think the audience won’t get it otherwise. Burning does away with all that. Burning says to its audience, “you can figure this out right?” and proceed with the assumption that the viewer is smart enough to understand what they are seeing. Because of that, the movie can spend more time actually establishing character and atmosphere, because at no point does any character have to become a 2-dimensional exposition machine. This is doubly effective because realizing something for yourself is always more powerful than having it told to you, in the same way that a joke isn’t funny if you need to explain it. Ben’s monologue about “burning greenhouses” might to some seem totally pointless, but over the course of the 2nd half of the film, both Jong-su and the viewer begin to understand that it has a hidden meaning in it, a terrible confession that leads to Jong-su’s suspicions. We are never told this, but we come to this conclusion naturally, and because of this we feel like we are right beside Jong-su in his determined investigation into Hae-mi’s disappearance. However, this all leads to a feeling that most movies, especially mysteries, don’t like to leave you with: uncertainty. Though there are strong indicators, there is absolutely nothing in the movie that 100% convicts Ben as the person behind Hae-mi’s disappearance. You can leave the theater feeling a strong belief that it was Ben, but total proof eludes us just as it does Jong-su. Jong-su takes this into his own hands in the explosive, violent, bloody finale, deciding that the proof he has is enough, but as viewers, we aren’t necessarily able to take that final step with him. As he stabs Ben to death and attempts to cover up his crime, we have to ask ourselves, did Ben really do it? Did he deserve that death? Was the circumstantial evidence really enough to prove his guilt? The screen fades to black, denying us a definitive answer, and as we leave the theater we must wrestle with these questions. Despite a lack of what some might call a “satisfying” ending, I find that this is the perfect way to end it. A reflection of real life, where things are never simple, never perfectly wrapped up, never truly satisfying.
As I wrote this, I found that Burning reminded me a bit of Memories of Murder in the way that it portrays crime and punishment realistically (or as realistically as a stylized movie can). Killers aren’t always caught, good doesn’t always prevail, and people don’t always get happy endings. It’s a more personal film than Memories of Murder though, more focused on character, especially Jong-su, and through that it gives the audience someone to strongly identify with. It brings the tragedy closer to home, making the confusion, suspicion, and finally rage, feel real and identifiable. Through all of this though, I still find myself coming back to Ben’s monologue, his veiled confession, where he mocks us with his ambiguity. “Sometimes I burn down greenhouses. I choose an abandoned greenhouse and set it on fire. You can make it disappear... as if it never existed.”