Lee Chang-dong is a world treasure. The South Korean filmmaker/philosopher works sparingly, and his constantly questioning movies deliver a lasting impact. Burning 2018 is Lee’s first film in eight years. Always with something to say, Lee assails South Korea’s current image-obsessed culture in an intriguing way. Ultimately frustrating is the story of a young wannabe writer from a rural village outside Seoul; caught in the strange big-city orbit of a Gatsby-like young rich guy and his girlfriend, a one-time schoolmate of the writer whom he is in love with.
Plot of Burning 2018
It is based on a skeletal short story by Haruki Murakami. In the same way, a spreading oak is based on an acorn. Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) is an isolated young man working a menial delivery job in Seoul, when he is accosted by Haemi (Yun Jong-seo), a childhood friend from his home village. Eventually, so close to the North Korean border that when a southerly wind blows you can hear the propaganda broadcasts.
The absolute precision of craft, from Hong Kyung-pyo’s unerring camera placement to Kim Da-won’s stunningly variegated and cleverly deployed score; hence, illuminating a trio of performances that are a little short of miraculous. As Yun Jong-seo invests Haemi with such beautiful eccentricity, she mimes the eating of tangerine and delivers her offbeat, non-sequitur dialogue with a fresh, startlingly real disingenuity.
The Korean-American Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) delivers a perfectly shivery, alien performance of detached privilege and sophisticated devilment. Eventually, encapsulated in one extraordinary moment when Jongsu catches him yawning while Haemi dances for his friends. As he responds with the tiniest of amused, conspiratorial eye-rolls.
Analysing the Ending
In the ending scene, Jong-Su asks Ben to meet him in an isolated, rural location and told him Hae-Mi was with him. If Ben did in fact murder Hae-Mi, he would have known that Jong-Su was lying. That given his previous stalker-like behavior he most likely wanted to hurt him. Ben never once attempted to injure or discourage Jong-su from looking for Hae-Mi. Even though he knew that Jong-su was following him and obsessed with Hae-mi’s disappearance.
There is no evidence to suggest Jong-Su had any remote interest in murdering Hae-Mi. One possible explanation could be that he suffers from schizophrenia or another serious mental disease. This could have propelled him to kill her and not remember. There is no substantive information to back this up. While it is plausible that he inherited “pride” or anger issues from his father, it is highly unlikely that he murdered Jong-Su.
Burning dwells in ambiguity. Every new detail of its narrative only makes the truth that much murkier. Facts get distorted and memories are never as clear as their owners claim. It’s a puzzling psychological character study of three distinct individuals that grows cloudier as we realize our impressions of two of them have been filtered through the third’s deeply skewed perspective.