Burning - Lee Chang-dong - Jong-su, Hae-mi, and Ben - Jong-su's house

Burning
2018, directed by Lee Chang-dong

Early in Burning when Jong-su first visits Hae-mi’s apartment, she tells him how a fleeting reflection from Seoul Tower once a day provides the only sunlight she gets. She says you have to be lucky to catch it, and as it turns out, Jong-su happens to witness that flash of sunlight while they have sex. The film’s recurring musical theme makes its first appearance at that moment, underscoring its significance. It shouldn’t be far-fetched to suppose that the sun’s rays should double as a figurative source of illumination, a key to the movie, because the view toward Seoul Tower from Hae-mi’s window will play a key role in two further scenes: first when Jong-su fantasizes about Hae-mi during her trip to Africa, and again toward the end, when he sits at her window to begin writing his novel.

The enigmas of Burning start to clear up if we think ourselves into Jong-su’s character at the moment Hae-mi calls him from Nairobi. At that very point he had been fantasizing about her, masturbating while facing Seoul Tower, and now he hears she will be back the next day and wants to see him. Their sex earlier was too sudden – he had not yet formed his desire – but now he is totally drawn to her, and halfway through the movie he will say he’s in love. At the time of this phone call, therefore, we have an unsuccessful loner who for once is ready to see his fantasy come true. When we think of a fantasy, however, we tend to think mainly of the object and neglect the subject. If a man fantasizes about a woman, for example, at the same time he fantasizes about himself as he would wish to be.

Burning - Lee Chang-dong - Hae-mi - Jeon Jong-seo

When Jong-su meets Hae-mi at the airport, the second half of his fantasy materializes in the form of Ben, who is everything Jong-su wants to be: rich, confident, respected, playful, good looking, cool, successful with women, a good cook, and free from any sadness or fear. Ben boasts of his superior DNA, and he speaks condescendingly to his mother on the phone, the way Jong-su would doubtless like to speak to his own parents. In spite of Jong-su’s interest in Hae-mi, he doesn’t protest or show self-pity when she favors Ben. In fact Jong-su lets Ben drive Hae-mi home, even as she stares after him as if waiting for him to change his mind. Does Jong-su lack the confidence to take her home? Or does he identify with Ben and give Hae-mi willingly to his own ideal self? Ben talks about being in two places at the same time, which fits with his being a projection of Jong-su.

Once we see what Ben represents to Jong-su, we can see that everything in Burning revolves around the problems of fantasy. The fact that Hae-mi, a girl he called ugly in middle school, has had plastic surgery to look pretty, makes her a fitting object of fantasy in his eyes. Like a fantasy she gives herself easily, falling into his life out of the blue. Her pantomime act with the imaginary tangerine suggests the power of fantasy: “Look. I can eat tangerines whenever I want.” After this he’s so primed to see the working of imagination that when Hae-mi’s cat Boil doesn’t show himself Jong-su questions the cat’s existence, supposing that he’s being drawn into some grand pantomime. Once Hae-mi returns and he’s handed her off to his ideal self, his fantasy turns from object (Hae-mi) to subject (himself). The recurring question as to whether the well by her house ever existed is so important to Jong-su because, if her story is true, then he’s a hero in her eyes for having saved her.

Burning is constructed so that almost everything is open to question, and it’s possible to argue endlessly about what is real and what is fantasy. Does Boil or the well or Ben or Hae-mi actually exist? Does Ben murder Hae-mi, clean up her apartment, and steal her cat? It’s natural to wonder about these mysteries, but the goal of interpretation should not be limited to sorting out what actually happened. Defining the story’s dynamic, logic, and purpose is more important than ironing out its ambiguities.

Burning - Lee Chang-dong - Burning greenhouse

In the second half, after Ben confesses his illegal hobby of burning greenhouses, the movie’s fantasy world takes a dark turn. Numerous clues build to an unspoken idea, presumably in Jong-su’s mind if not in the movie’s reality, that Ben murders Hae-mi, “burning” a “greenhouse” that’s closer to Jong-su than he thinks. When Jong-su visits one particularly desolate greenhouse he gets a wordless call from Hae-mi: a light set of footsteps runs away, and heavier steps approach calmly to turn off Hae-mi’s phone. Hae-mi disappears, her apartment is tidied up, her suitcase is still there, and no further calls come from her phone. Her pink watch appears in Ben’s drawer among other feminine souvenirs, and Ben has newly adopted a cute cat who answers to the name Boil.

If we view Ben as an extension of Jong-su, as his fantasy-self made real, then Ben’s crimes reveal to Jong-su the dark side of his own fantasy life. In addition to all the positive qualities he envies in Ben, Jong-su secretly wishes to use women and destroy them. Once he realizes this he’s horrified, and the act of killing Ben equates to killing off this destructive side of his own personality. Right before finding Hae-mi’s watch in Ben’s drawer, Jong-su takes a hard look in the mirror as if he’s about to see himself more clearly. When he delivers the fatal thrust into Ben’s chest, Ben embraces him – is this the gesture of a man asserting his moral superiority by showing kindness to his killer, or is it the natural reaction of a long-embedded character trait resisting its ejection? After killing Ben and burning his Porsche, Jong-su drives off stark naked, newly unencumbered by his old faults. The movie rises to a new level if we take it as a story of Jong-su growing up.

Jong-su says he hates his father, and he wishes to play savior to his mother. Both of these are signs of an oedipal personality, a man stuck in a juvenile sexuality, nurturing a rivalry with his father and a possessive bond with his mother. If we’ve learned anything from Vertigo or Psycho we should understand that such men are particularly dangerous to women because they’ve never outgrown the self-centeredness of a five-year-old boy. When Jong-su berates Hae-mi for undressing in front of men, we see the possessiveness of a boy who wants his mommy to himself. This might be normal in a child, but in a grown man it’s perverse. Ironically such men tend to mirror the faults they find in their hated fathers. If Jong-su can break the law without getting caught like his dad, he’ll feel his filial contempt is justified.

Burning - Lee Chang-dong - Ben, Hae-mi, and Jong-su - restaurant

Insofar as Ben is Jong-su’s invention, or at least the object of his projection, his name is hardly neutral. The Western name marks him as cosmopolitan, but more importantly “Ben” means “son” in Hebrew. Like Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo (whose name also includes the word “son”), an oedipal character is acutely conscious of being a son to his parents, imagining himself still a child while in a man’s body… a child old enough to make demands but not yet ready to comprehend responsibilities or to see others as equals. Right before the final scene Ben applies make-up to a young woman, re-making her like Scottie makes Judy over in Vertigo before driving her to her death. It’s the first scene without Jong-su in it – he’s finally ready to see Ben separate from himself.

Unlike Scottie Ferguson and Norman Bates, however, Jong-su comes to realize what he’s been. The movie gives him plausible motives to break free from his immaturity. He may be touched to hear he’s the only person Hae-mi trusted, or he feels ready to survive without his dark side after projecting it onto another person for so long. After stalking Ben for a long time (i.e. getting to know his own dark side), the pink watch in Ben’s drawer shocks him into self-awareness, and he’s ready to guess that the cat is Boil. The last time we see Hae-mi is a final moment of fantasy, giving Jong-su a hand job in her bed, but she disappears, leaving him alone. It’s precisely at this point that he begins to write, as he’s long meant to do.

Burning - Lee Chang-dong - Jong-su in Ben's bathroom - mirror

It’s no accident that Jong-su starts to write as soon as his fantasy dissolves. This is the chief insight of Burning – the definition of growing up is to channel fantasy into creative work. Each time Jong-su uses Ben’s bathroom he’s running away from a question about writing – first the definition of a metaphor, then what kind of novel he’s working on. Until he sees the reality behind his fantasy he’s not ready to be creative. Jong-su tells Ben that reading Faulkner makes him think of himself – he still has a child’s point of view.

This understanding of creativity, as a product of maturity, is stricter than the prevailing definition. Most people are willing to call the imaginative products of juvenile fantasies “creative”, but according to the logic of Burning, real productive creativity – the kind that Jong-su aims for – comes from a mature impulse that puts the self aside. This insight, of course, should interest any critic who’s willing to separate the wish fantasies of immature artists from mature works driven by a constructive purpose. The distinction between fantasy and genuine creativity mirrors the difference between “Little Hunger” and “Great Hunger” that Hae-mi witnesses in the Kalahari. “Little Hunger” is literal physical longing, the self-focused craving for satisfaction, which corresponds to childlike fantasy. “Great Hunger” is a desire to understand the meaning of life, a wish that transcends the self and corresponds to true creativity.

Burning - Lee Chang-dong - Hae-mi - Great Hunger dance - sunset - Miles Davis - South Korean flag

A high percentage of reviews focus on the disparity between economic classes in Burning, often grouping the movie with Parasite, which was released the following year and which foregrounds the topic of inequality. The contrast between rich and poor is certainly prominent in Burning, and the brief clips on Jong-su’s television add real-world social and political context, but the movie’s chief concern is to understand the dangers of fantasy – which naturally extend into the economic and political spheres. The concentration of wealth into a few hands, which, assuming a finite-sum game, deprives countless people of needed resources, happens because so many of us (of whom some succeed) reach for a fantasy world where we can have all we desire.

When Ben asks Jong-su what kind of story he’s writing, Jong-su answers that he hasn’t started yet because “To me, the world is a mystery.” It’s an honest answer, yet we can see that Jong-su’s difficulty comprehending the world stems from his childish self-centeredness. Precisely one minute later, after approaching Ben’s bathroom with visible fear, Jong-su will be jolted into the real world when he discovers the pink watch. Now the world is less of a mystery to him, and he’ll soon be able to start writing about it.

CONNECTIONS:

5 Fingers – Character motivated by an image of what he’d like to be

Rear Window – Oedipal male who grows up when he moves beyond a fantasy world

Vertigo – Oedipal character with “son” in name; oedipal complex resulting in danger to women

Psycho – Oedipal character who fantasizes being a hero to his mother

Last Year at Marienbad – Hazards of fantasy

The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting – Rays of sunlight reflected into a room are a key to interpretation