Burning (Beoning) made it to the Oscar shortlist for foreign language films, but didn’t get a nomination. That’s too bad, because from my point-of-view it’s a better film than at least two of the nominees for 2019.
Inspired by a short story by Haruki Murakami and directed by Lee Chang-dong, Burning is told from the point-of-view of Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in). The son of a farmer who is in trouble with the law because of his violent behavior, Jong-su works as a delivery boy, but he has a passion for literature and wants to be a writer. One day, he is spotted by sexy, flighty Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), who reminds him that they grew up together and he once called her “Ugly.” She takes him back to her apartment and they make love. Jong-su is smitten. When Haemi announces that she is going away to Africa for a while, she gives Jong-su her key and asks him to take care of her cat while she is gone. He does so, although he never actually encounters the cat.
When Haemi returns, she asks Jong-su to meet her at the airport. She is accompanied by her new friend Ben, a rich young man, who drives a Porsche. (Ben, by the way, is played by Stephen Yeun, a regular on the TV series “The Walking Dead.”) Jong-su is understandably disappointed, but he goes along. When he first visits Ben’s condo, he is awed by the wealth and luxury. His reaction is reminiscent of Giulietta Masina’s reaction when a famous actor takes her to his apartment in Federico Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria. But whereas for the prostitute played by Masina, it is like a dream briefly come true, what Jong-su finds is more sinister. Why does Ben keep women’s jewels hidden in his bathroom?
Ben comes across like a fusion between Ted Bundy, the handsome and charming serial killer, and Donald Trump, a spoiled rich kid who believes that because he was born rich, the laws that apply to people who weren’t born rich don’t apply to him. Ben does, however, appear to take a genuine interest in Jong-su because of their shared interest in literature.
Ben and Haemi pay a visit to Jong-su at his family farm, which he is forced to tend to because of his father’s legal woes. Ben explains that he has an odd hobby: burning down greenhouses…and he plans to destroy one nearby. After Ben and Haemi leave, Jong-su searches for a burned down greenhouse, but doesn’t find one. When Haemi disappears, it gradually dawns on Jong-su that maybe it isn’t literal greenhouses that Ben destroys.
I saw Burning at the Asian World Film Festival. The screening was followed by a fascinating discussion by Lee Chang-dong. He struck me not so much as a filmmaker, but as a philosopher who has chosen filmmaking to express himself.