Should I forget it ‘isn’t’ here?
Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) never tells Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) what “metaphor” means. They’re standing in Ben’s (Steven Yeun) kitchen as he chops ingredients for a pasta dish and talks philosophically with a smug smile until the question comes up. He defers answering her to Jong-su since he’s the writer of the group, but he decides to ask where the bathroom is instead of supplying one. It’s ironic since the entirety of Chang-dong Lee‘s Beoning [Burning] proves one giant metaphor for the anger, uncertainty, and entitlement of youth. These characters exist within a construct built by Lee and co-writer Jungmi Oh from a Haruki Murakami short story (“Barn Burning”) as a series of open-ended plot threads we can either pull or ignore depending on whether our personal interpretations need them or don’t.
What’s most intriguing is how those interpretations can change during the course of its two-and-a-half hour runtime—sometimes mere minutes later. I honestly found the first half insufferably unimaginative with its nice, innocent boy (Jong-su) falling prey to the wiles of an old classmate he serendipitously runs into (Hae-mi). She’s obviously flirting with him and he’s less oblivious than awkward. Eventually they find themselves alone in her apartment under the pretense that he’ll feed her cat while she’s away in Africa, the consummation of their rekindled relationship steeped in ulterior motives that may or may not reveal him to be less kind than appearances pretend. He becomes infatuated, dutifully doing as told only to be repaid upon picking her up from the airport with Ben on her arm.
Jong-su remains quiet at this new dynamic, sheepishly diverting his eyes while embarrassedly going along in the hopes she won’t realize he wanted to be more than just friends. Ben couldn’t be more different than him: successful (albeit through means never explained), confident, rich, and charismatic. And as the trio hangs out together more and more, the whole situation falls victim to a present-day filter wherein Jong-su’s lack of self-worth creates resentment and rage until his “cuck” is positioned to become an “incel.” He continues to ask, “How high?” whenever Hae-mi screams, “Jump!” He’s used to feeling stepped on with self-pity stemming from a mother abandoning him and a father whose own aggression and pride placed him in jail with Jong-su forced to pick up the pieces.
If not for the enigmatic Ben, I probably would have checked out. Jong-su not only doesn’t deserve Hae-mi—especially after sharply inappropriate words are spewed in a fit of jealousy—but he doesn’t deserve our sympathy either. Yes, his life is difficult. Yes, he has little to no recourse for what that difficulty entails. But that’s no excuse for his actions. If Ben is privileged to be above the law via status, Jong-su’s entitlement is born from his having none. Sometimes that origin point is even worse. So our intrigue becomes centered upon the inevitable tragedy we feel is coming to Hae-mi. Who will be the culprit, though? Who will drive her away? And once Jong-su recognizes his underlying similarities to Ben, will he experience revulsion or satisfaction?
Or will he recognize them at all? Ben soon shares his arsonist proclivities despite having held everything close to the vest before. This vulnerability comes after an afternoon of drinking and marijuana with Hae-mi falling prey to the siren of a sunset and the beauty of its juxtaposition against the horizon line of an oppressed North Korea across the way. It’s this strange, magical moment devoid of inhibition that culminates in our seeing how differently these two men see the object of their desire. One treats her like a plaything, a possession. The other handles her like a child with judgment manufactured from his own prudish fears. Ben talks about taking life by the horns, invigorating Jong-su with his fire’s allure—why he ultimately won Hae-mi’s heart.
Suddenly the formulaic progressions of exposition from the beginning become transformed into motivations. Jong-su’s life as a doormat moving from ambivalence to anger finds a tangible target in Ben where he previously had only the abstract “establishment.” He doesn’t want this man’s life as much as he wants to prove he doesn’t need its excess. Jong-su starts to see him as the enemy, a lying opportunist who believes himself immortal through hubris. Ben is the type of person who takes from those poor like him, his father, and Hae-mi. So when she suddenly starts ghosting Jong-su (with good reason mind you), you can’t help but wonder what’s going on behind Ben’s impeccable façade. Lee somehow ratchets up the tension between the two before foul play is even considered.
It only takes Ben’s description of a derelict greenhouse as being worthless and asking to be destroyed for us to understand exactly how large the chasm is separating them in life. We remember what Jong-su does: Ben’s boredom when with Hae-mi, his parading her in front of his friends, and his otherwise aura of tolerating her company rather than the slightest shred of passion. He doesn’t care about them because they are ants on the sidewalk. He doesn’t fear them when they grow emboldened nor does he push them back when they infringe upon his space. Ben welcomes them closer because he gets satisfaction in smelling their weakness. The rush of knowing he rules them gives him power because he knows they haven’t the tools to fight back.
But just as Jong-su’s father stands his ground with prison time looming, this young man isn’t about to simply roll over. One metaphor begets another until we find ourselves on the same page as him about what Ben might have done. Don’t get me wrong: this realization is pure mob mentality. There’s no concrete proof for our assumptions, just irrefutable conjecture that has our guts refusing to yield. The reality of what occurs does Jong-su no favors as far as allowing him to evolve from “cuck” to “incel” and thus perpetuate the cycle of toxic masculinity his opponent epitomizes with an effortless superiority, but reading it that way over-simplifies the rage’s origins on a political and social level beyond the central romance. Jong-su’s act is one of revolution.
He’s a fiction writer playing detective, a romantic tired of being forgotten. Is it problematic that he must resort to violence to feel big? Yes. Is it problematic that Murakami and in turn Lee and Oh force his hand because of what they’ve created in Ben? Yes. But I wonder if there’s more to what their actions mean and where they come from than what is wrought. There’s a meta-narrative aspect to Burning wherein the film’s characters are characters in life—symbols poked and prodded in some grand experiment to find humanity’s breaking point. Like Hae-mi “forgets” her pantomime object “isn’t there,” these characters forget they’re not real. It’s an illusory thriller infused with sex, mystery, and murder wherein retribution arrives once consequences become less important than pride.
courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment