In honor of IU’s Korea Remixed celebration this semester, I would like to draw Media Beat readers’ attention to an underrated 2018 gem from one of South Korea’s most talented directors, Lee Chang-dong. His masterpiece, Burning (버닝), based on a short story by widely acclaimed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, received little awards attention and sadly flew under the radar for many film-goers. Despite receiving high critical praise and featuring one of the most promising rising actors, The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun, the film has already seemed to fade from many people’s memory.
The film has a deceptively simple set-up. A young aspiring writer named Lee Jong-su runs into a woman named Shin Hae-mi, with whom he quickly becomes infatuated. As they start to get to know each other, he is introduced to one of Hae-mi’s friends, Ben, played perfectly by Steven Yeun. Ben clearly comes from a much wealthier, privileged background than Jong-su: he has a glamorous apartment, car, and perfect social skills, whereas Jong-su comes from a broken home, drives around in an old rusty truck, and has trouble expressing himself. Around the halfway point of the film, the three of them go out to Jong-su’s farm for a trip, where Ben reveals to Jong-su a mysterious and strange hobby of his involving burning down greenhouses he finds out in the countryside. Shortly after this trip, Jong-su attempts to contact Hae-mi, but cannot seem to find her and worries that something horrific may have happened to her, and that Ben may be involved.
I will stop there to avoid spoiling the mystery or giving away more of the plot. Lee Chang-dong slowly builds the suspense from this point on in very Hitchcockian fashion as the movie increasingly spins into the realm of a psychological thriller. The film is intentionally vague, without any easy answers given to the audience, allowing for several profoundly different interpretations with the potential to completely alter how film-goers will view each of the characters, or even understand what the movie is trying to say. It is an amazing feat that Chang-dong is able to pull off such an entertaining genre piece that is also so rich in thematic content.
Burning is one of the most relevant and poignant films about contemporary society to come out in the last decade. In a world increasingly rife with division by class, gender, politics, etc., many people are finding it harder and harder to trust one another. That trend is a focal point of the film, in the characters’ inability to trust each other and truly know the others’ motives, as well as through the audience’s struggle to fully know whom to trust while watching the film. There is much more to chew on in terms of how Burning raises and reflects contemporary social dynamics, and the film warrants multiple viewings, but to divulge more would give too much away. I hope I have piqued readers’ interests enough to inspire them to seek out the film out and come to their own conclusions. Korea Remixed is a perfect time to connect with this artistic contribution, and Media Services has this title available on both Blu-Ray and DVD. JG
Janzen Greene studies media and film here at IU. He joined the Media Services staff in Fall 2021, and this is his second post for Media Beat.