When I first saw the movie Burning, I was utterly blown away by its enigmatic plot and shocking ending. I decided to research what the movie was about and found that it was based on a short story by Haruki Murakami. After reading the short story, I gained a much greater appreciation for the film. To help others who may be confused by the movie, I will explain the plot and ending of Burning.
The boy and girl, Jong-Su and Hemi, come from the village. He is a graduate of the Literary Institute, a fan of Faulkner, works as a peddler, and because of the arrest of his father, who broke the hand of an official, he works on the family farm. She – works as a street barker, and relatives do not allow her to return home until she pays off her debts. They meet by chance in the city and make love. Immediately after that, Hami, entrusting John-su with feeding his cat, leaves for Africa, from which he returns with another guy – Ben: John-su finds himself in the “friend zone.”
The film (an adaptation of Murakami’s story) begins as a romantic comedy. It turns into a love triangle story and a social sketch to become a thriller in the end. Ben is wealthy and successful, although we don’t know how he makes his money. The three of them spend time together until Hemi suddenly disappears, and we never know where she went or why. Jon-su has strong arguments (but not evidence) that Ben had a hand in this. John-su will kill Ben in the end: either in revenge for the loss of Hemi, from jealousy and resentment, or simply not controlling himself (his father has anger problems, which may have been passed on to his son, but before that, John- su introduced himself quite peacefully).
From this brief retelling, which does not at all convey the beauty and sophistication of the film, it is clear, however, that The Burning works on three levels: existential, social, and metaphysical: the levels of the Lesser and Great Famines. Jamie talks about the Bushmen’s view of the world: there is a Little Famine, the body’s hunger, and material shortage. And there is the Great Hunger, the hunger of the soul, the lack of meaning. This two hunger – spiritual and material – as in a nesting doll- are inserted into the other. And the matryoshka is us.
Jong-Su and Hemi experience the Little Hunger: from poor peasant families, and they work for pennies, they live – she lives in a closet, he lives in a rather dirty village. This is their social position.
Existentially, they are lonely and lost in life, which is probably why they dive into their love so quickly.
And finally, they do not understand the meaning of what is happening. This is perfectly expressed in the same device of the film: after all, the viewer cannot understand what happened. The film itself evokes in the viewer the Great Hunger for meaning. About this understatement, the director of “Burning” says this in one interview :
“The mysteries of the film allude to the world we live in today, a mysterious world in which we feel something is wrong but cannot fully determine what it is.
Today, people all over the world, regardless of their nationality, religion, and social status, get angry for various reasons. The rage of young people is a particularly pressing problem. The thousands of people living in Korea today will be the first generation to live worse than their parent’s generation. They believe that their future will not change for the better. They feel powerless because they cannot find an object to express their anger. This film is about vulnerable young people filled with rage.”
And in another :
“Today’s young people have anger they can’t express. The main problem is that people do not know the reason for their anger.”
The film’s combination of existential, social, and metaphysical aspects is perfect. In Jamie’s apartment, sunlight appears only once daily, reflected from the TV tower. Just a glimmer of light that Hemi herself has become for Jong-soo. This is a metaphor. “What is a metaphor?” Hemi asks in one episode. The morning came and went: Hemi became Ben’s girlfriend.
Jong-Su and Hemi are from the “working people,” and what Ben earns, we do not know (something “funny,” according to Ben himself). The people in the film are divided, as the Korean Peninsula itself is divided (the sound of North Korean propaganda reaches the village of Jong-soo) or the whole world: Trump’s speech about immigrants flashes through the film. Ben has a secret hobby: setting fire to greenhouses, which in Korea are “millions and no one needs them.” What serves as a metaphor for these useless, according to the young bourgeois, millions that can be set on fire for fun, is straightforward (all the more so since the burnt greenhouse was not found, and the girl disappeared). Moreover, the police do not investigate such cases: it is also an understandable metaphor for the work of the police and its selective attitude towards different classes of society. The bourgeois argues: it started to rain, there was a flood, people died – there are no right and wrong here, there are only material processes. Ben talks about the rapture of the crime, revealing the dirty secret of the enjoyment of the propertied classes.
“I love her,” Jong-soo says, Ben, laughing. Ben yawns, looking at Hamie, then he will yawn, looking at the next simple girl that has fallen into his hands. Ben never cried (Hami cries, perhaps too often). Such is the bourgeois with his feelings and worldview. He does not experience the Small or the Great Hunger: everything is clear to him. Everything is simple. He has everything. He doesn’t cry like Hemi, and he doesn’t get angry like Jong-soo either. He is not concerned about Hemi’s disappearance. He calmly smiles and yawns. Only sometimes does he set fire to greenhouses – the only thing that reminds him of a person (the loss of humanity).
“Everyone asks God, but I ask myself” – Ben comes to self-deification, adding metaphysical features to the personal and social portrait of the bourgeois (distinctively, Ben goes to church and museums: all the blessings of the world, including spiritual ones, are his).
Fire is the only link between Jong-soo and Ben besides Hemi. For fun, Ben burns greenhouses, symbolizing the peasantry, labor, and poverty. And John-su will burn Ben’s corpse in his Porsche – a symbol of the bourgeoisie, idleness, and wealth. Ben’s fire and John-Su’s fire correlate as the objective violence of the system and the subjective violence of protest. The design drives the vast majority of Jong-Su and Hemy into poverty and debt while raising a minority of the likes of Ben into wealth. It seems to the bourgeois that this is an entirely natural process, devoid of a moral dimension (a flood metaphor). The system is smooth and solid: you can’t bend it. How can you not find out what happened to Hemi; it can be broken.
A girl and two guys: in general, a banal metaphor. Hemi seems to love Jong-soo on the one hand, and on the other, is dating another because, according to her colleague, “a girl needs money.” But we learn all this from the words of others and not Hemi herself. She wants to “dissolve into the sky like a sunset” – these are her words.
The proletarian girl goes to the bourgeois, and the common is left with a nose: a simple metaphor for social alienation, which extends much further than economic: humanity itself is ultimately alienated from a person (in fact, judging by Johnsus’s ineptitude in sex, he was a virgin and after losing it – alone again; Ben is a womanizer; “someone has everything, but someone has nothing”). One of the film’s best portrayals: Is Yong-soo’s mother meeting him for the first time in 16 years because she was in debt. At the same time, she cannot even talk to him usually, carried away by her smartphone. The proletarian masturbates in Hemi’s little room while Hemi is away (looking at the same TV tower). Pitiful situation. As Marx wrote:
“Since in the proletariat that has taken shape, the abstraction from everything human, even from the appearance of the human, is practically completed. In the living conditions of the proletariat, all the living conditions of modern society have reached the highest point of inhumanity; since in the proletariat, man has lost himself. But at the same time, he has not only acquired a theoretical consciousness of this loss but is also directly compelled to revolt against this inhumanity by the dictates of an inevitable, no longer amenable to any embellishment, absolutely imperious need, this practical expression of necessity.
This is similar to the Hegelian distinction between moral and torn consciousness. For an honest mind, everything is clear and straightforward, as for Ben. For a torn reason, everything is in question, like Jong-Su. A torn consciousness cannot hold truth, good and evil, since they are already “not retained” in their reality (and this torn consciousness is attributed to the audience – we repeat once again – by the same device of the film). Ben is doing well and is calm; everything is terrible with Jon-su; rage, resentment, jealousy, misunderstanding, and anger in him. But because truth, good and evil for a torn consciousness is entirely concrete, “tested in their skin” – it is just able to realize this, and consciousness from “torn” can become “indignant,” that is, such that it can change reality. A torn consciousness can catch a gap in the fabric of fact, not noticed by a moral consciousness (“the main problem is that people don’t know the reason for their anger” – let’s quote the director again). Something is wrong with the world at all levels: offended love, social oppression, the incomprehensibility of what is happening.
This is similar to Lacan’s distinction between truth and knowledge. Knowledge is all that can be articulated. Ben articulates beautifully, and Jon-su, for nothing that the writer, is increasingly silent. But the truth can be revealed only in understatement, in the form of a riddle. So the film itself has the shape of truth, for it is understated and mysterious.
Existentially – loneliness and rage; socially – poverty and work; metaphysically – misunderstanding and the search for meaning. This is from John-su. Ben has excellent socialization and peace, wealth and idleness, confidence, and rootedness. At the same time: Jong-su loves, and Ben yawns. The world lies in evil: and the aspects just mentioned – existential, social, metaphysical – are simply different levels of the movement of evil. But we know what kind of Bread satisfies the Great Famine and how to deal with those who are hungry for the Little Hunger. One of the main lessons of “Burning” is the relationship between the Great and the Little Famine. The relationship of the following gospel passages: “it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” “and the last will be first and the first last. blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and you gave Me food”.
Hemi tells a story from childhood (which she may have made up herself): she fell into a well, and Jong-soo saved her. It seems that the film about the fact that Hemi fell into the well is more terrible, and Jong-soo was supposed to save her but “forgot” his role as a savior – and insulted Hemi when he saw her for the last time. In the darkness of Hemi’s little room, the night where thousands of young people do not know the reason for their anger – we forget to save those whom we are called to protect. The girl is missing, and we don’t know what happened to her.
And so the final murder is fraught with the question, “was it? If yes, is it justified? And if so, how is it justified? It’s like a ceremony: Jong-soo completely undresses (the second time in the film – the first in a sex scene – these are two moments of the hero’s “initiation”) and burns his belongings. The final murder is tempting to understand as a metaphor for the Revolution and the hero’s rebirth. But Jong-su did not learn anything reliable, just like “thousands of young people do not know the reason for their anger.” In this case, it is not conscious emancipatory violence but violence, blind, fundamentalist.
Lack of meaning and standard conditions for life gives rise to violence – this is the key to fundamentalist violence. The idea is generally bland, but it’s good that the film gives it without forgetting both aspects – two pangs of hunger, not just one material one. In general, it can be said that Jon-su becomes infected with Ben’s aggression: he sees a burning greenhouse when Ben tells it and sets fire to the greenhouse himself (and immediately puts it out) when he wants to catch Ben red-handed. The film, if desired, can be understood as a distorted view of the oppressed, who cannot see the situation as a whole, which causes rage in him (say, the look of some guest worker who has become a suicide bomber).
Be that as it may, the film’s understatement “expresses” the very understatement of our entire reality: the Hunger of the Small and Great Famines.
The ending explains the “Enemy” movie.
Initially, the ending of the story “Burn the barn” can be interpreted in different ways. The first option: “burning the barn,” is the murder of a girl (and all the girls before her). I’m leaning towards this option. The main character’s description is very reminiscent of an abandoned barn somewhere in the field (lonely, not attached to anything and the). Plus, her man is very secretive. Plus, their strange relationship. Well, it’s easy to guess.
The second option is a banal parting, which the man associates with burning the barn and bridges and stuff.
A clear, unblurred ending in the novels and stories of Haruki Murakami is something from a series of fiction) “Norwegian Wood,” for example, but this is the exception that proves the rule.
So anyone can explain the endings of such stories as they want. Which is suitable for developing imagination, by the way)
Interview with director Lee Chang-dong
Did Burning start for you with Haruki Murakami’s “Burn Down the Barn”? Or was there something else in mind?
– I did not know that I would shoot this picture or film Murakami. I had several different projects in my plans. The scripts were at various stages of development – sometimes just sketches, sometimes full-fledged texts for many pages. But it never came to filming. At some point, I realized something strange: these plots had one thing in common – they were all connected with the anger growing inside the characters, with the phenomenon of the rage that modern people often experience, living in an outwardly comfortable world. At this point, I stumbled upon Murakami’s story “Burn the Barn Down.” The mysteriousness of this text could be developed and extended so that it would reach a different level of comprehension and unite all my thoughts about anger.
– Can “Burning” be interpreted as a picture of class stratification in modern Korean society?
The two men who meet in my film come from different universes. Their style and habits are fundamentally different. But for me, the young people who inhabit Korea at the beginning of the 21st century are another indestructible mystery, a seductive and strange mystery. [Protagonist of the film] Jeongsu, without realizing it, admires Ben’s life. Although he understands this is impossible, he wants to appropriate it for himself, to imitate her. He can’t even imitate her. Jeongsoo’s frustration grows, and he becomes increasingly obsessed with how and why he is connected to Ben, which brings them together. This brings us to an unexpected outcome.
— The outcome and the finale, unlike Murakami’s short story, make The Burning One an independent work — despite the apparent similarity of intrigue in the film’s first half.
“Together with the hero, we cannot help but torture ourselves with the question: who is Ben? Like many, it seems to be a rich, famous, prosperous guy. But could he be a serial killer? It turns out that Jeongsu, to understand something about himself, must first understand Ben – and he fails. The finale answers this question, not so much in an intellectual or plot key, but in a sensual one.
– How important is the issue of intergenerational relationships, the legacy of the elders to you? The protagonist inherits his father’s farm – this is an essential element in the film.
– Young people are always connected with their parents. And they never want to admit it. Jiangsu despises his father because he cannot curb his anger or pull himself together. But he soon realizes that he is not too different from his father. To be free from the presence and influence of parents is the dream of many, but it is unattainable.
“Burning” is a mystery film. Did you reveal his secrets to the actors? Did they know the truth about their characters that you don’t tell the audience?
— Yes, we talked with the actors non-stop. Their tasks were challenging here. After all, usually in the detective genre, the mystery is resolved at the end. Still, on the contrary, the mystery only grows, and the duality of each character develops as the action progresses. You are not given a single clear answer. You know, I didn’t want to give them. On the contrary, I asked each actor how he imagines his hero, what kind of person he is, and whether he is guilty of something or not. For example, is Ben still a good person or a conspiratorial villain? They gave different answers, and depending on this, we built the pattern of acting.
– Your previous film, “Poetry,” revealed the connection of reality with poetry, reading, and writing. This time the source for the film was prose. Moreover, in addition to Murakami’s story, the influence of Dostoevsky’s novels is felt here.
– I am a writer by profession, and I don’t think that literature and cinema are so different from each other. The film and the book tell a fictional story that helps us see the world around us in a new way. As for Dostoevsky, I have loved and read him from a young age. I have never deliberately made references to his books in my films, but this has happened unconsciously more than once.