Chang Dong Lee’s Burning paints an intricate portrait of modern day South Korea. It raises questions about toxic masculinity, generational wealth, and gentrification, among many other things, while withholding any definite answers to the questions it poses. Instead, making sense of the mystery hinges on which character you’ve aligned yourself with, and whose truth burns brightest throughout the film.
The story begins with a chance encounter between Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) and Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who grew up together in the same neighborhood in rural South Korea. They grab a drink, then end up back at her place, where they sleep together. She then asks him to feed her cat while she goes on a trip to Africa. He does so, but never sees the cat, as it is always hiding from him somewhere in the apartment. When Hae-mi returns from Africa, Jong-su is surprised to see that she has arrived at the airport with another man, a friend she met during her travels named Ben (Steven Yeun). Ben is the opposite of Jong-su. Jong-su is a wannabe-writer from a poor family, his father is facing jail charges for assaulting someone, and he drives an old, beat-up truck. Ben, on the other hand, drives a Porshe and lives comfortably in the Gangnam district of Seoul. The three begin to hang out together, and it is clear that Jong-su is bothered by Ben, and Hae-mi’s relationship with him. Perhaps Jong-su thought of Hae-mi as his girl after their initial encounter, or perhaps he is jealous of Ben’s mysterious wealth (we never find out exactly what the Gatsby-esque character does for a living). One night when the three of them are smoking marijuana and talking at Jong-su’s farm house, Ben confesses to Jong-su his peculiar habit of burning down rural greenhouses, telling him that he loves the feeling of making something disappear from the Earth. But is this strange hobby of Ben’s literal, or is it just a metaphor? Spoilers to follow.
Shortly after this, Jong-su goes to Hae-mi’s apartment, but cannot find her. She’s changed the lock on her door and after the landlady lets him in, he finds no evidence that she lives there–her room is now tidy and her cat’s food and litter is gone too. Jong-su begins to follow Ben, hoping that he might lead him to Hae-mi, who has mysteriously disappeared. Jong-su becomes more obsessed with the disappearance of Hae-mi and believes that Ben is somehow involved. He has little evidence to support his suspicions, but does find a watch that he had given Hae-mi in a drawer in Ben’s bathroom, and suspects that Ben’s new cat is actually Hae-mi’s cat. The film builds slowly and suspensefully before reaching its surprising ending.
The film’s shocking conclusion leaves you wondering about Jong-su’s suspicions and makes you question the relationship between the two men, and the woman who caused their paths to cross. If Jong-su’s suspicions are the truth and Ben was involved in her disappearance, then it raises questions about the kind of crimes that wealthy men can get away with, while Jong-su’s crime of passion is laid bare for us to see, and its consequences seem eminent. But if Jong-su’s suspicions are not based in reality, if they are just the makings of a jealous, spurned lover, then the film’s ending raises questions about class divide and toxic masculinity, as well as the kind of stories we write for ourselves–how we can paint ourselves as the savior rather than the villain, but that the truth is often more complicated and up for interpretation.