- Release Date: 17/5/2018
- Cast: Ah-in Yoo, Jong Seo-Jun, Steven Yuen
- Director: Chang-dong Lee
BEONING aka BURNING
Burning is one of those films that are exceptionally polarizing. When I say polarizing, I mean it both in terms of the audience reactions as well as the interpretation of the content that is on display. This is one film that I cannot review without giving away spoilers and no matter how much I hate doing that, in this particular case, I won’t be able to put my fingers on certain points without giving away some key plot details. So if you haven’t seen this film yet, I urge you to watch the film first and maybe then read this review.
Jong- Su (Ah-in Yoo) bumps into his childhood friend Shin Hae-mi (Jong Seo-Jun) and they immediately catches up on their old times. Jong-Su doesn’t remember their past very well but it is apparent that he is very lonely and being in the presence of Hae-mi, who he apparently finds attractive, makes him chirpy and even though he has a faint recollection of their past together, he plays along with all that Hae-mi has to say and do. He in fact never says ‘no’ to her, no matter how ridiculous her demands are. Hae-mi is slated to visit Africa on a tour and she entrust Jong-su to take care of her cat when she is gone. Jong-Su comes to her residence but doesn’t find a cat and he expresses his doubt over its existence. All that melts away as Hae-mi makes advances and they end up making love.
She leaves thereafter and Jong-Su keeps visiting her house to feed the cat that he never finds. He finds its droppings though. Soon Hae-mi returns but this time with a male friend Ben (Steven Yuen) who she explains she met at the Nairobi airport. Jong-Su is evidently in love with Hae-mi but the arrival of Ben doesn’t let him express his feelings for Hae-mi. The three keep meeting and during one such meeting, after Hae-mi passes out and Jong-Su finally speaks his true feelings for Hae-mi to Ben, Ben speaks of his peculiar hobby. His hobby that involves burning down greenhouses and standing there watching the house collapse to the ground and turning into ash. Jong-Su is perplexed but he plays along. That night before Hae-mi leaves with Ben, Jong-Su tells her something very hurtful but that he does out of jealousy as by now, he is in love with Hae-mi and he can’t stand her proximities with Ben.
Post that meeting, Jong-Su never finds Hae-mi again. He calls her repeatedly never to be responded. He goes to her house to find it empty and as always without a cat. He visits her old neighborhood but doesn’t find her there either. After all hope is lost, he zeroes in on Ben who he now believes must know the whereabouts of Hae-mi. As he follows Ben and recollects about his weird hobby, he gradually starts believing that Ben might have murdered Hae-mi for fun or sport. Soon a time comes when Jong-Su believes that he has gathered enough evidence to conclude that it was, in fact, Ben who murdered Hae-mi and then he takes a serious step to redeem her.
Burning is one of the most temperamental films that I have seen in years. The central motif in the film is loneliness which not only brings Jong-su and Hae-mi together but also ensures that sparks fly almost instantly. It is loneliness of Jong-Su after Hae-mi is gone which gives him enough time and willingness to dig around Ben and also gather or conjure the evidence that according to him perpetrates Ben to the disappearance of Hae-mi. The director, Chang-dong Lee, does an exceptional job at keeping us guessing and confused by showing us stuff that can be interpreted in multiple ways.
Jong-Su concludes of Ben’s crime after he finds Hae-mi’s watch in a cupboard at Ben’s house along with a lot of other trinkets that he believes must have belonged to Ben’s previous victims. Not only that, he finds a cat in Ben’s house that was not there previously and concludes that it was Hae-mi’s. In addition to that, he watches Ben’s behavior with his new girl companion and draws parallels to how he was with Hae-mi. Last but not the least, Ben’s acceptance of the fact that he did burn a new greenhouse near Jong-Su’s house a few days after they met there and the fact that Jong-Su is unable to find any recently burnt greenhouses near his house makes him conclude that Ben is, in fact, a serial killer who takes pleasure in burning lonely girls who would not be missed. If one looks closely, each of the pieces of evidence that Jong-Su believes to be conclusive can be interpreted in a different manner.
Even the disappearance of Hae-mi can be viewed as a random act on her part. It is made amply clear that Hae-mi values Jong-Su immensely and believes that he is the only one for her in the world. On the day that she comes to visit Jong-Su at his house with Ben, she is having a great time and believes it to be the best possible day. At the end of it all, Jong-Su calls her a prostitute for taking off her top in the presence of Ben. She might have been extremely hurt at his words and decided to just take off leaving no traces behind. The fact that Jong-Su does receive one call from her in the midst of it all and no words are exchanged in that call only points fingers to the fact that maybe Hae-mi might have taken off being hurt.
In a similar fashion, Jong-Su’s every doubt and then his conclusion that Ben killed Hae-mi could also have been totally correct. There are many nods to that fact as well. Why are there so many ladies’ trinkets in Ben’s drawer? He was the last person who was with Hae-mi and hence he should have known better about her whereabouts. He constantly keeps saying things that point to him having a skewed perspective on life. He is as mysterious as one can be. The things he said about burning greenhouses and the manner in which he said it does point a finger or two at him. If that’s not all, the manner in which he treats his new companion also raises a few eyebrows i.e. if you are Jong-Su.
This is what is so special about this film. It is almost impossible to conclude one way or the other. One either has to agree with Jong-Su or not. In both circumstances, the ending is bound to leave you exasperated. This is a film which is 2 hours and 25 minutes long. It does take a moody pace to its screenplay but I never for once felt the runtime or the proceedings getting slow. I was hooked to the narrative from the get-go and that has a lot to do with the performances.
Ah-in Yoo is terrific as Jong-su. He plays a character that is so vulnerable and burdened with everyday issues that it is hard not to find similarities between him and oneself. This is one of the biggest reasons that make Jong-su so effective and heartbreaking. Jong Seo-Jun plays Hae-mi with such charm and organic charm that one would instantly fall in love with her character. She gives the feel of being that confused and aloof soul who would bank her life on one man and would not be willing to tell that man how she felt about him. All throughout the film, I felt that she was madly in love with Jong-su but never expressed that. Her act is so real and affecting that it is hard to take one’s eyes off her. Steven Yuen is the charismatic and electric grey character. He is just so likable and hateable at the same time that it is hard to point out which one he is more. Yuen brings his indelible charm to the role which not only elevates the feel of the character but also makes his role memorable.
The cinematography and editing of the film are in strong keeping with the mood and aesthetics of the story. The visuals are so beautiful and the lighting so perfect that when I was watching this film, I felt like taking snapshots and saving every frame as wallpaper. The editing can be moody pace-wise but that’s exactly how this film was supposed to build up. It is not slow, it is just a slow burn and I believe there was no other way of approaching this story. The background score is apt.
Burning is one of the most conflicting and temperamental tales of the year. It is definitely going to be the kind of film that will be debated and ruminated for its unconventional story and treatment. The performances will be debated separately for its finesse and what the mannerisms of the actors can be interpreted as. Burning is truly one of the best Korean films of 2018 and a must watch.
Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)