'Burning' is a riveting drama about masculinity and desire

by Joyce Lee | 1/17/19 2:35am

There’s an image in Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” that I still see when I close my eyes at night: a little boy approaches a burning greenhouse. He is inexplicably dripping wet — with water? with gasoline? — and he stares at the flames in a trance.

The surreal nature of this scene — which turns out to be a dream by the film’s protagonist Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) — and the vague sense of misplaced horror it evokes is a mood that permeates throughout the rest of the film. The atmosphere feels appropriate, considering that the film is based on Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning.” Murakami is a writer whose work is known for being about monotone men whose worlds start to slowly unravel at the seams, bleeding into the bizarre and disturbing, sometimes for unidentifiable reasons. 

Initially, Jong-su doesn’t really differ from this stock character; he’s a writer, but he’s taken over his father’s farm after his father gets arrested for assault. He’s in love with Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a girl from his hometown whom he runs into by chance. Like his Murakami counterparts, he is not a particularly active character; she initiates conversation with him first, suggests getting drinks first and invites him to her home first by asking him to take care of her cat while she is traveling in Africa. 

This passivity continues, to an almost frustrating extent, with the arrival of Ben (Steven Yeun) alongside Hae-mi when she returns from Africa. Ben is noticeably affluent, which Jong-su notes bitterly as he calls him a “Gatsby.” Yeun injects his character with a subtle condescension, signaling that Ben’s wealth is clearly on display — this is a man with an ego, no matter how quiet and charming he seems. 

The film lives and breathes in its mounting tension, as it spirals into a mystery thriller through the fraught nature of the relationships between the three characters. Yoo gives a masterful performance as the mixture of desire, rage and jealousy overtake him. His body seems to always be coiled into itself, his walk tottering as he looks at the world around him with his mouth slightly agape. Perhaps the best part of this performance is the river of anger and masculine insecurity that lies brimming beneath Jong-su’s impassive face. He is no longer Murakami’s hero — he contributes to his explosive world as much as he is impacted by it. 

Much of this movie is captured in small, inexplicable moments and details. There’s a small ray of light that is reflected into Hae-mi’s apartment at a certain hour, for a few minutes every day. There’s a cat that may or may not exist. Memories are shaky and inconsistent; people seem to vanish into thin air. 

Yet for all of these semi-magical details, the film itself is not a fantasy. In fact, parts of it are so grounded in the bitter, bone-weary reality of an economic downturn, youth unemployment and class struggles that even the peaceful setting of Jong-su’s farm is constantly disrupted, sometimes literally by North Korean propaganda broadcasts from the border that exists just a few miles away. The anxieties of the modern world contribute to the tension in this film as much as the relationships, and it culminates in a wounded sense of masculinity. 

The word “pride” is repeated throughout the film, as a reason for why certain characters do certain things that would be considered foolish, unworldly. But “pride” in Korean has a different connotation than in English; pride is sacred, something to be protected. It is as much about how one treats oneself, as it is about how others treat you. Pride in Korean sometimes ends up being inherently masculine; there’s even a phrase that acts as justification for why men sometimes do stupid things: “It’s my man’s pride!” There is no equivalent term for women. 

The masculinity that runs rampant throughout this film is fascinating and complex, but it also threatens to overwhelm the female characters. The vanished woman is also a common trope in Murakami’s work, and one that’s often criticized for how it denotes female characters to objects who only exist to further the male protagonist’s arc. In this sense, Hae-mi is no different. Her disappearance is metaphorized by burning greenhouses, an act of “fun” that Ben confesses to Jong-su. Like an abandoned greenhouse, women like Hae-mi are anonymous and unwanted by society. But also like an abandoned greenhouse, Hae-mi’s character is simply a shell holding ideas of fragile femininity, of being an object of desire. She is easily burned down, easily vanished.

The question has to be asked: Is there not a way to talk about masculinity and how it can warp into rage and violence without making female characters into objects? Lee is a sensitive director, whose previous works like “Secret Sunshine” delved into intense character studies. But he fails to answer this question, much as Murakami has failed to answer it throughout his significant literary career. 

In the scene I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the little boy is assumed to be Jong-su; it is not revealed why he is dripping wet in front of the fire. Perhaps it’s water, to protect him from the flames engulfing the greenhouse. But perhaps it’s gasoline, and he is just waiting to dive into the fire, to let it consume him completely.