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"Burning" (Beoning, 2018): Review

This review contains spoilers as an explanation piece. If you had questions about this film, I have all the answers you need.

Burning 2018 directed by Chang-dong Lee

Burning 2018 directed by Chang-dong Lee


After watching Steven Yuen play Glenn in the hit series The Walking Dead, it was awesome to see him in a film speaking Korean.

Burning is one of those films that chose a story that hides all its answers. I know that there are deeper questions to ask than the ones I did after watching. But I'm not here for that, I'm here to give you the lazy explanation. The one that points out the obvious things asked and tells you how I interpreted them.

What's It About?

The story starts out simple enough, Jong-su doesn't know what he wants out of life. He fancies being a writer, doesn't much care for high-standing career paths, and has a father who is in strife with the law. His father punched a civil servant and hit him with a chair. His mother abandoned the family long ago and he wonders about her often.

One day Jong-su runs into an old neighbor, Hae-mi. From there, his days become a jumbled mess of mystery and yearning.

Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun and Jong-seo Jun

Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun and Jong-seo Jun

Why Did I Like It

Not only did I get to see Steven Yuen speak Korean, but I also realized that no matter what setting he is placed in, his performances captivate me.

Yuen can shine in any role, as far as I'm concerned, and in this film, a myriad of personality traits are cast with a simple change of expression. You can tell his character as Ben is to be feared somehow. Whether this fear is warranted is up to the viewer.

You could conclude Ben is a master at lying by omission and always knowing the perfect thing to say. And when he wants to be liked and endeared to by others, he comes across as charming and arrogant with little effort. A lot of his reactions are done in a mocking way and this is what leads me to believe the more sinister musings about his personality.

Jong-su is the perfect polar opposite in a film like this. Always seeming as though he is non-threatening and over-willing to play along. His character creates the perfect storm of assuming insignificance. It's only the viewer that knows he is anything but. From quick glimpses of him peering into his farm knife cabinet to touting feelings of love for someone he was with only once. He also quotes literary writers and sees more than most considering his poor background.

The backdrop throughout this film has clear ways of showing the separation of class. The rich enjoy quiet and lovely settings and the poor are left to battle with their beat-up cars and crowded streets.

Frustrating or Brilliant?

Burning never quite lands anywhere specific, but the tense and foreboding feeling hammers at every point of the story. The mystery surrounding its antagonist Ben grows almost to breaking point. Then the story absolutely obliterates any pre-conceived notions you might have had leaving you with nothing more than mere assumptions. I must admit I have spent way too much time thinking about this movie. I also watch a few scenes over to try and find more conclusive clues.

This might frustrate some, well, ok it frustrated me a little too. Is Ben a serial killer or simply someone who assists people who want to disappear? Perhaps you are in the camp that thinks this pondering is irrelevant and the story is simply about a love triangle and the end doesn't matter? There are arguments in each scenario.

Overall, I think the duality that films like this create is exactly what makes it superb. I've read reports from even the most uninterested audiences. They were curious as to what the fuss was about but have been captivated nonetheless.

With Burning about to drop on Netflix on April 29th, you can bet more people will be talking about this one.

I give Burning, 4.5 missing cats out of 5

Ah-in Yoo and Jong-seo Jun in Beoning (2018)

Ah-in Yoo and Jong-seo Jun in Beoning (2018)

Questions, Questions, Questions

I'm not going to go into all the social and moral anecdotes, metaphors, and symbolism I have fact-checked in the quest to find my own answers. Most of these things can be entirely interpreted by the viewer. For example, I read that the calf represents Jong-su. It was thought that in Korea a calf signifies innocence and that when he sold the animal it meant he was ready to make his next move and had given up that idea.

Gatsby and Faulkner

There is a lot of talk about Faulkner. The significance of him for me here is that his work covers the moral and the social aspects of many different themes. Some of his books also were known to include analysis of what he had written which certainly would have come in handy here. In the same way, there are references to Gatsby. In the story of Gatsby, he is a millionaire who causes chaos in the lives of those from a lower class of people.

Why Ben is a Serial Killer

There are many reasons why this is a more compelling argument for me.

  • Ben's first raised red flag is his statement that he has never cried. He likes to 'play' and enjoys watching people transform. Someone who has never cried screams to me that he is a psychopath in nature.
  • He is bored quickly with Hae-mi, although encouraging her to tell stories and dance for his friends, he yawns. Ben wants his friends to see his newest acquisition. I quite like the theory that he is someone who makes money from selling organs. Rich friends and rich allies are great opportunities for untraceable amounts of money to save those close to them.
  • Ben speaks about being well-traveled and his apartment is filled with a lot of cultural things. Ben even talks about being in two places at once. He says "I am here and I am there" which says to me, he has roots in many places allowing him to never be conspicuous. I believe he always has an alibi for the times he chooses to 'burn' his playthings.
  • Having only known Hae-mi for three days stuck in Africa, she seems to have told him her whole life story. He knows that Jong-su is her only friend. Later he professes that she was more alone than anyone realized and that no one would look for her if she disappeared. He also is quite forthright that she did not go on a trip.

Were They Trophies?

  • Ben keeps a draw with what you can only deem are trophies. The last thing Jong-su discovers is a watch he gave Hae-mi. It's what leads Jong-su on an investigative mission. When he begins to follow Ben, it is evident that he is aware he is being followed. Ben is shown noticing him from his jogging machine and calls him as he is parked outside his residence.
  • While Jong-su follows Ben, they are seen going to many different remote locations. Why would someone of Ben's affluence be in places like this other than, hiding, burning then eliminating the evidence, of bodies?
  • In the last quarter of the film, Ben is seen applying makeup to his newest female friend. He touches her in a way that suggests he has won her over. In Korean, the word makeup means cremation. As Ben often refers to burning down greenhouses. As a point of interest, another word for a greenhouse is an orangery.
  • Looking at Ben's circle of friends, in each instance we see them, they are never friendly. Most of the dialogue on their parts seemed rehearsed as if they were there to check out a product, not Ben's newest girlfriend.
  • In the last scene, I debated over the sentence, "Isn't Hae-mi with you?" as one that suggests Ben didn't kill her. However, even this sentence can be interpreted in two ways. One in that he made her disappear and the other in that mocking way because he knew he would never find her and knew he was tailing him.
Ah-in Yoo and Jong-seo Jun in Beoning (2018)

Ah-in Yoo and Jong-seo Jun in Beoning (2018)

Is Ben a Magician?

The other theory I quite liked, to begin with, was that Ben's job is giving people a new life. If the final sentence,
"Isn't Hae-mi with you?" should mean that Ben had sent her off to greener pastures and thought she was alive then other aspects can be deciphered differently as well.

  • Hae-mi said she had plastic surgery and was now pretty. She lives in a pretty nice apartment complete with security. Going to Africa, and the mention of credit card debt later in the piece suggests she is living above her means. It could also mean she has money and the unsavory way Jong-su calls her a whore could mean that she is one. Disappearing may have been her plan, therefore she hired Ben. Running into Jong-su was a happy accident and although he was terrible to her and told her she was ugly, she could now put that part of herself behind her.
  • Jong-su's mother agreeing about the neighborhood well story was said in a dismissive way. His mother is looking at her phone, totally uninterested in seeing her long-lost son. She's not really listening and says yes to the story to finish the line of inquiry, not because she actually remembers. This means Hae-mi is someone known to tell stories. Her desire for a better life was what she was always trying to achieve (the hunger).

Jong-su Has Issues

  • Jong-su's like was at a precipice. His father was known to have explosive violence. His mother had abandoned him. Hae-mi had used him and Ben was mocking him by taking her from him so easily. The situation for him as a wanna-be writer was inspiring. When his father is sentenced to jail, it's the final catalyst for him to take opportunities where they were. He liked her apartment, he took it. Perhaps it was all paid for, she hadn't moved out and he was able to convince the landlady to let him in. He lured Ben to the greenhouses to kill him because whether or not Hae-mi was alive or dead, she was gone and he had nothing left.

English Subtitles for the Burning Trailer

© 2019 Movie Whisperer


Sue on July 08, 2020:

Ben was hired by loan sharks to kill Hae-mi. Trump was on the background. Political turmoil and class war touches Seoul. Misogyny. Her debt. Bens kill.