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Burning (2018): Review

It's not often that a movie catches me completely off-guard in such off-handed fashion, but Burning (2018) does. It musters what few movies can manage: gradual surprise and genuine doubt.

Note: This movie depends on total ignorance, going in. Because this review has spoilers, I fully recommend watching the movie, first. 



It would be difficult to confuse Chang-dong Lee's Burning (2018) with Tony Maylam's The Burning (1981). One is a top-shelf thriller, driven by careful pacing and deliberate, understated performances; its cast is excellent, the characters they play sharply-drawn and announced by a distinct lack of obvious musical cues. The other is more the straightforward slasher exercise from earlier times (the music, while excellent, is anything but subtle); Maylam hides little. Burning hides much, but does so in plain sight.

I feel the act—of calling Burning a thriller—gives little away. If I did, would you believe me? I, myself, read the synopsis, and felt grossly indifferent. I won't say when—just that, the movie reaches a point where the viewer is made to doubt everything they are shown. Watching the movie, itself, its progress borders on tedious. Our hero, Lee, is a painfully quiet writer. He sees much, like James Steward, in Rear Window (1954), but says little. All the same, Lee's vision is unreliablenot because it is flawed, but because the clues are vague. 

One fateful afternoon, Lee meets a girl, a singing salesperson called Shin. She takes a shine to him, and grants him a plastic watch "won" from a raffle (she rigs the contest). He lingers; she gets off work and approaches. The two begin to talk, wending the city blocks. They went to the same school, but were distant, as youths. After awhile, they go to a cafe. Lee watches and listens; Shin smiles and prates. They seem very different from one another, the mutual interest indicated by the fact that neither has left. It's a difficult situation to read, but the clues are there (the entire movie operates like this, so pay attention).

Shin is bubbly and aloof. There is no naked clue to her sexual appetites, nor Lee's. They smile and talk as people do when trying to hold up appearances in public. Lee even offers to go home, hesitant when she invites him—to her apartment, "to feed her cat." It might sound obvious, but it's really not. None of this is delivered with a wink. The pacing and dialogue are too nonchalant, too quiet. Nothing is beaten over our heads.

Lee obliges, and they arrive at Shin's place. She claims to actually own a cat, and unless she's using the litter box under the bed herself, there's evidence to prove it. The animal is stubbornly out of sight. We can only imagine it, based on what we are told (another reoccurring theme). The apartment is small and cramped. While not as messy as Lee's farm, it is lived in, all the same.

Once inside, Lee and Shin keep cool. They don't throw themselves into each other's arms. They talk, much as they had outside. Eventually they kiss, not quite sure how to proceed. Ever the neophyte, Lee is ready all the same. Shin stops him to quietly produce a secret stash of condoms from under her bed. He puts one on and they proceed. Lee makes love as one who is unsure of how to behave. He doesn't overact. Instead, he daydreams. A writer, the young man's eyes wander, easily distracted by sunlight on the wall. How Lee operates, here, will be how he operates later, when things take a turn for the cryptic.

The genius of this movie lies in its presentation. Much seems meaningless. Later, you're left toting a necklace of clues. Important information is consistently omitted. The puzzle is never complete; you've simply become aware that it is, in fact, a puzzle. For now, things unfold in ways that seem curious, but utterly devoid of malice. This is largely a visual film, too. There's little music before, during, or after the love scene. It makes for a very opaque experience.

Time goes on. While Lee is the poor son of an imprisoned farmer, Shin is more of a free-spirit. He goes home; she, to Africa. There's no narrator voice-over, no soliloquy. When not attending his father's court dates, Lee toils the earth and drives about in a cumbersome rig. From time to time, someone calls him. We do not know who. It seems random, inconsequential. The prank call is a taste of things to come, a singular, but opaque occurrence. Impossible to read, its meaning changes through circumstance alone. At first, there's naught to consider. Then, "Is it Shin?" Later, it could be... someone else. It goes to show how Lee's imagination (and potentially our own) is motivated by suspicion and doubt. Fueled by a frustrating lack of information, recursive events yield more and more confusion as time goes on.

A few weeks later, Lee is called again. Silence. "Who is this?" he asks. It's Shin! Her voice is difficult to hear. Nothing but silence leads the normally-quiet Lee to ask what's wrong. She eventually responds, telling him everything is alright. What happens what she's not around to assure him? For now, the anxiety is the everyday sort. There's no menace. This will change as similar events unfold later on, the circumstances less-than-pleasant.


Lee meets Shin at the airport, but she is not alone; a handsome stranger called Ben is with her. Played by Steve Yuen, aka "Glenn from The Walking Dead (2010)," Ben is charming and frank. He knows people, talks often, and says curious phrases like "I cannot cry." I could tell you he is dangerous and you wouldn't believe me; there's no context for it. When there eventually is, very little about the interactions will change, from a visual standpoint. Visuals are all Lee has to go on. For him, Shin is the context. Her being present (or not) will alter the significance of what Lee sees. What once seemed harmless before will take on sinister new meanings that cannot, and will not, be substantiated.

For now, Ben, Lee and Shin spend time together. Their conversation at the airport and diner is pedestrian, harmless. Ben gets up and greets a friend. He is gregarious, confident. Afterward, Lee—embarrassed by Ben's sports car—lets the other man take Shin home. Ben doesn't judge. He even invites Lee to a party at his house. The guests are numerous, leading Lee to describe Ben as a "Gatsby" to Shin (she laughs). During diner, Shin talks about hunger—of being hungry for life as described by the bushmen of Africa. To make her point, she offers to dance for the other guests. When asked to clap in time, most eventually stop. Her dancing does not.

Clues are presented innocently. Lee excuses himself, begins randomly poking around Ben's home. He finds a shelf, full of disparate jewelry. None of it appears to be anything Ben would wear (to my memory, he wears no jewelry throughout the movie). Yet, he lives with no one, so who does it belong to? Such questions did not enter my mind until later. For now, the scene is innocuous—presented without music, or baleful context. It adds up to little because the viewer isn't prompted to calculate. Later, when they are, those calculations fail to compute.

The trio eventually stay at Ben's farm. Shin tells a story of falling into a well (another clue). Then, she removes her shirt and dances topless in the sun. Exhausted, she falls asleep, and the two men talk. Lee confesses his love towards Shin; amused, Ben tells Lee something off-hand: he burns down greenhouses. Yet, his method of delivery is so calm and relaxed, Lee does not scold him; he merely says that he will watch the greenhouses in the area. Their dialogue is not of two men verbally jousting. It sounds almost neutral. Ben swears how he razed a greenhouse before meeting Shin in Africa; Lee merely watches him, failing to respond in any way that might betray how he truly feels—to Ben, and to us. However, shortly before Ben takes Shin home, Lee pulls Shin aside and rebukes her for flaunting her body. Another clue.

Things progress quietly for Lee. He prepares a petition for his father and sells the farm's only cow. He also guards the local greenhouses from Ben (assuming Ben was serious); Ben leaves them alone, in any case. The mysterious phone calls at night continue for Lee—leading him, in a rare outburst, to shout into the receiver. One day, he receives a call from Shin, only to be disconnected, but not before hearing ambiguous sounds on her end. Keep in mind, she could have been ambivalent, not interrupted by anything sinister.

While Lee decides to investigate, the rashness of it implies jealousy and suspicion. Having been given a key to Shin's apartment (to feed her cat), he tries it. Much to his chagrin, the locks have been changed. Lee implores the landlady to permit him. She does. The apartment is unusually clean. True to form, the cat does not come when called, either. However, its litter box is also gone. So is almost any trace of Shin having lived there. Some odds and ends remain, but are presented more as a museum for anyone who might come looking than as things left behind by a returning resident.


A frustrated Lee makes inquiries. Another girl confides in him, telling him she hasn't seen Shin for ages. Several locals, when pressed, insist her story about the well was nonsense. Then, a surprise visit from his estranged mother leads her to tell Lee that there was, in fact, a well. Although she has no reason to lie (they haven't met in years), this is hardly proof that the well exists. It merely muddies the waters: Shin may not be (as) mercurial, after all.

From a distance, Lee studies Ben with growing suspicion. He cannot accuse the other because there is no proof. He follows him, but there is nothing to see. When Ben spots Lee and greets him, no accusations are thrown; they make small talk. Ben tells Lee that he is reading Faulkner, because Lee had mentioned the author, before. Then, Ben is greeted by a pretty girl resembling Shin. Seeing her, Lee asks Ben about Shin, if she has perhaps gone on a trip. The other man replies he doubts it, that Shin did not have the means. This flies in the face of the other sale girl's testimony—about Shin having gone "off-grid." Nothing adds up. The feelings of disquiet mount.

Ben invites Lee to another party at his house. There, Lee finds the same drawer, except now it has Shin's bracelet inside—or rather, a mass-produced bracelet given away by the singing girls at the market. It could be Shin's, or not. It's not concrete proof, and under different circumstances would seem insipid. However, because Shin is missing it leads Lee to suspect Ben. Apart from the bracelet, Ben also has a new cat. The cat has no name (according to him) and is "adopted." When it runs outside, the humans follow it. Lee spots the animal, and calls out the name of Shin's now-missing cat, a cat neither he, nor we, have ever, actually seen. The animal responds to the name—a name Ben and his current girlfriend did not know. 


This is not concrete proof of a crime, that Ben murdered Shin and stole her cat. Still, Lee's suspicion grows. We do not know this because of what he says; we must infer it based on what he does according to what he sees. When Ben tells Lee to relax, massaging his shoulder, Lee does not attack him, nor does he ask him to stop. He simply leaves. Later, Lee follows Ben, tailing him. This produces nothing in the way of proof. The images are no less clear than before, except now Lee is treating them as clues to a disappearance he cannot say for certain happened; or if it did, that the circumstances were dire. Much of it is fueled by his dislike for Ben, but even this must be inferred by us; Lee, like the signs around him, is very hard to read. At this point, calling Ben a serial killer might seem more plausible than before. Increased scrutiny only reveals how muddy the waters actually are, however.

Eventually Lee retaliates, calling Ben and telling him that he is with Shin. In the countryside, Ben waits, patiently smoking a cigarette. Nothing gives his inner thoughts away. He is neither frantic nor worried. Lee drives up, and Ben approaches. The music is calm; Ben asks where Shin is, but not accusatorily. Lee slowly gets out, partially hidden behind the car door. In the blink of an eye, he produces a knife he'd been hiding and stabs Ben multiple times. In death, Ben says nothing. Lee says nothing. Ben dies; Lee drags the corpse over to the car, douses it in petrol, and lights a match. As the car burns, Lee disrobes in the chilly weather and tosses his bloody clothes into the blaze. Then he drives away.

Burning expertly lays the viewer on shakier and shakier ground. Once it pulls the rug out from under them, there is nothing to confirm any of the nagging questions. Is Shin dead, or missing? Was Lee right? I could tell you Ben was the killer, or not. Would you believe me, either way? The only violence on-screen was perpetrated by Lee. Worse, his actions were committed through the reading of ambiguous events: Shin was mercurial and odd, could have been avoiding Lee all this time for what he said to her at the farm, calling her a whore; the cat may not have been Shin's, nor the bracelet; Lee's mother could have been wrong about the well, but regardless if she was or not, it has little to do with Ben.


By the end, you know something is horribly, horribly wrong, but you're not sure what. This is an expertly cryptic and elliptical thriller. Watch it again.



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