I’ll be the fist to admit that it’s probably open for debate whether or not the 2018 South Korean film, Burning, is really a horror film. On the one hand, it could be a murder mystery or perhaps a film about a poor farm boy who meets an upper class sociopath. On the other hand, it could all be a big misunderstanding. By the end of the movie, you’re not even sure that all of these characters even existed. Though there are no ghosts nor any other paranormal monsters to be found in Burning, it’s still a deeply unsettling film. In fact, it’s one of the most unsettling films that I’ve seen in a while. It’s a film that sticks with you, as any good horror film should.
Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is an aspiring writer who makes a meager living by doing odd jobs in Seoul. His family owns a farm and his father has been accused of murder, though the details as to what happened are left deliberately opaque. When Jong-su runs into an old classmate named Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) in downtown Seoul, he doesn’t recognize her at first. She cheerfully explains that she’s had plastic surgery. She also says that she has spent years training in the art of pantomime. She pantomimes eating invisible food and she does such a good job at it that you’d swear she was actually holding something in her hand and chewing something in her mouth. After they have sex, Hae-mi says that she’s going on a trip to Africa and she asks Jong-su to look after her cat. Jong-su agrees.
And yet, we never see the cat. After Hae-mi leaves, Lee goes to her apartment and searches for the cat but never finds it. He finds evidence that the cat does exist. Food is eaten. The litter box is used. And yet, the entire time that Jong-su is supposed to be taking care of it, the cat is never seen. Jong-su spends so much time searching for the cat in that apartment that it’s hard not to wonder if the cat even existed. For that matter, Hae-mi’s story about going to Africa is remarkably vague. Why is she going to Africa? Why has she entrusted someone she barely knows with taking care of her cat? Are the cat and the visit to Africa just another pantomime, something that seems real yet only exists in Jong-su’s mind?
When Hae-mi finally does return from her trip, she brings with her a story about being stranded in the Nairobi Airport for three days as the result of a terrorist attack. Returning with Hae-mi is Ben (Steven Yeun). Ben is a handsome and rich and confident and everything that Lee is not. Ben alternates between being superficially friendly and chillingly cold. At one point, he suggests that he at least cared enough about Hae-mi to be jealous of her relationship with Jong-su and yet it’s hard not to notice that Ben always seems to be slightly annoyed with her whenever they’re together. When the three of them go up to Jong-su’s farm and a stoned Hae-mi dances in the night, Jong-su watches enraptured while Ben smirks. (It would be easy to assume that Jong-su is the good guy while Ben is the bad guy if not for a scene where Jong-soo angrily reprimands Hae-mi for her behavior around other men, showing that Ben is not only person in the film with control issues.) At one point, Ben casually tells Jung-so about his interesting habit. He sets fire to greenhouses. He destroys the beauty that others have grown. He tells Jong-su that he’s noticed a lot of greenhouses near his family’s farm….
Burning is a deeply unsettling film. It’s not just that Steven Yeun gives a chilling performance as a man who appears to have no soul. (The film makes very good use of Yeun’s natural likability so show how someone like Ben can not only survive in the world but also thrive in it.) At the same time that we’re trying to figure out Ben, we’re also struggling to get a read on Jong-su as well. We spend a lot of time with Jong-su and yet, by the end of the movie, we’re still not sure that we know him at all. He says he wants to be a writer and speaks vaguely of Faulkner and Fitzgerald but it still seems as if he’s hiding secrets of his own. It’s tempting to read a lot (perhaps too much) into Jong-su’s admiration of Faulkner and Fitzgerald. Faulkner wrote novels that took place in the heads of his characters, much as how Burning, at times, seems to be taking place completely in the head of Jong-su. Fitzgerald’s best-known novel was about a man who was obsessed with money and a woman whom he had idealized beyond reality. Jong-su, at one point, refers to Ben as being Gatsby but we’re left to wonder if perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps Jong-su is Gatsby, the poor man who is constantly trying to reinvent his reality.
It all leads to a mystery that may not be a mystery and clues that could just as easily by coincidences. It also leads to an act of sudden violence, one that leaves you wondering whether or not we knew any of these people. As I said, it’s a deeply unsettling film but, at the same time, it’s not one that can be ignored. It has a 148-minute running time and it’s deliberately paced and yet, due to the strength of the performers and the intriguing enigma of the plot, you don’t get bored. You don’t look away. You watch this story and you search for answers that you know you’ll probably never find.
Burning is on Netflix right now so be sure to watch it before they drop it to make room for another season of American Horror Story.