“Burning,” a 2018 South Korean thriller directed by Lee Chang-dong and based on Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” slowly unfolds into a story about the search for meaning in life. The film chillingly reflects the young generation’s rage as a response to the sense of isolation in South Korea and beyond. It highlights class and gender inequalities through the vastly different circumstances of main characters, yet at the same time the movie almost imperceptibly dissolves such boundaries in their shared struggle within an alienating, postmodern society. This multilayered depiction of human relationships points to the core question posed by the film — also a complicated one asked by great philosophers since the 19th century: What should each of us, in our individual conditions of life, hold onto in order to counter the constant wavering between boredom and desire, or the profound division under capitalism? “Burning” asks this question from the perspectives of its three protagonists and shows us how their pursuits of connection and meaning all lead toward nothingness.
The film begins with a love triangle that leads to the disappearance of Hae-mi, a broke girl who searches for connections, meanings and means of survival. She meets Jong-su, her old neighbor and working-class aspiring writer working on a novel, and tells him about her upcoming trip to Africa in order to witness a “Great Hunger” ritual, in which people dance in search of the meaning of life. Jong-su, who grows up without parental love, falls in love with Hae-mi after their brief sexual encounter. Hae-mi, however, comes back from the trip with a new boyfriend, Ben, a Gatsby-esque rich and enigmatic young man living in a big house by himself. The three of them hang out together until Jong-su becomes puzzled by Ben’s confession to him that he is a barn burner and has found a new barn to burn. A few days later, Hae-mi disappears. After a frantic attempt to find her, Jong-su suspects Ben of killing and burning her body — as he witnesses Ben dating another young girl after the incident and hiding a collection of souvenirs from all the girls he has dated, including Hae-mi’s watch.
No longer able to suppress his rage at the chillingly charming and apathetic suspect, Jong-su stabs Ben to death in the final scene — a five-minute long take with the hand-held camera pivoting back and forth to witness Jong-su’s act of killing and burning. Instead of resisting, Ben hugs Jong-su firmly as if fully accepting his fate of death. Disturbed by his own act, Jong-su pukes and totters on his way to grab the lighter. He then walks back to the Porsche in which Ben’s body lies, taking off his clothes piece by piece — perhaps not only with the purpose of destroying evidence, since he even takes off his underwear. After throwing all the clothes and the lighter into the car, now saturated with gasoline, Jong-su walks away from the camera and toward his own trunk, fully naked like a newborn child.
It is the final scene, however, that epitomizes the state of entrapment and ambiguity that is so essential to the film itself.
This is perhaps one of the two most important scenes from the film that were added into the story by Lee himself — the other one being the widely acclaimed dance scene, in which Hae-mi dances topless in front of the two men to imitate the “Great Hunger” ritual. It is the final scene, however, that epitomizes the state of entrapment and ambiguity that is so essential to the film itself. The murder takes place in a desolate industrial suburb, with cables and poles segmenting the gloomy sky. Snowflakes start to drift down as Jong-su takes off his clothes, signaling not only death and bleakness but also transformation. Jong-su begins to pant heavily as he becomes fully naked. He opens his mouth, as he consistently does throughout the movie, as if deprived of air. In the original story, Murakami adds a reference to Nazi murderer Adolf Eichmann by writing, “[People say] the most fitting sentence would be to lock him in a cell and gradually remove all the air.” Jong-su is clearly suffocating, but not only due to the lack of air. He is suffocating due to the absence of Hae-mi, of sunlight, of parental care and of a proper way out of his isolated life.
It is also within this scene of cathartic violence that the poignant issues of class and gender suddenly blur, revealing a shared struggle for all three characters. The blood-soaked hug between Jong-su and Ben, assuming that Ben is rightly suspected, points to a strange solidarity between the two murderers. Just as how Ben resorts to an obsession with preying on Hae-mi and other girls of her kind to offset his constant yawns in those home parties, Jong-su — trapped within fear and desire — murders as an attempt to release his inner rage. And just as how Hae-mi takes off her clothes to dance under the orange sky, Jong-su strips himself naked to perform his own “Great Hunger” ritual. These three young people hang onto different things as their attempts to dissipate a common sense of alienation. But as Hae-mi vanishes without a trace and Ben disappears into the air, what would Jong-su eventually be reborn into?
Of course, let’s not forget about the ambiguity of the ending on a narrative level, which Lee elegantly lays down through an abrupt shift in perspective. The final scene could be only part of the novel that Jong-su is writing, which Lee implies by suddenly cutting from Jong-su writing in his window to Ben in his bathroom. Or even if the scene where Jong-su murders Ben does happen in reality, Ben could be the wrong suspect. Ultimately, the film seeks to imitate the ineffable form of the life that it portrays so keenly. And just as we are trapped within the ambiguities of the story, the characters are trapped within the devastating isolation and emptiness of their own postmodern world. Or, could it be our world as well?