The Stories That We Tell Ourselves about Telling Ourselves Stories: Burning (Beoning / 버닝 2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is technically not part of a series on the 2018 Taipei Film Festival, but as the film was shown as part of the festival, and the theatrical screening I attended was screened at the festival venue during the festival using what appeared to be the same film reel that was used for the festival, I’m including it in the series anyway.

We’ve never seen a metafictional film quite like this before. Beyond the knowingness of Deadpool (2016) and reticent where Adaptation. (2002) is giddy, Burning (Beoning / 버닝 2018) is a silk-smooth character study from acclaimed South Korean director Lee Chang-dong (who co-wrote) that morphs midway through into a Hitchcockian thriller, before ending in the realm of social commentary—if you can figure it out, that is. The filmmaking is assured to the point where long takes go unnoticed, and the impeccable pace makes the 148-minute running time feel all too short, especially given how tight the plot is, as you’ll see from the length of the plot summary below.

The film is ostensibly based on the Haruki Murakami story “Barn Burning,” but thematically it owes at least as much to Faulkner’s story of the same name; while only the bare bones of Murakami’s story are preserved, the film includes Faulknerian touches such as a prideful and temperamental father, class antagonism, a cow (a cow-like person in Faulkner), and even a death. This textual ambiguity is later deviously applied to the film itself.

Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) does manual labor in the city while trying to make some use of his creative writing degree by writing a novel, about what he knows not. He meets Hae-mi (newcomer Jeon Jong-seo), an ugly-duckling junior high schoolmate from back in the northern countryside who’s now blossomed into adulthood and working as a showgirl. The two are a study in contrasts: He plods through each scene with a passive expression on his face, while she is bubbly and vivacious, almost to the point of eccentricity. They grab drinks, and Hae-mi asks Jong-su to feed her cat while she’s away in Africa seeking the meaning of life. She brings him to her tiny apartment where, instead of finding a cat, Jong-su finds himself being seduced by Hae-mi, seemingly in revenge for once calling her ugly. A well-timed shot of fleeting light symbolizes his newfound infatuation.

Is there a cat? Neither we nor Jong-su ever see it, but the food and water bowls are empty and there’s poop in the litter. Meanwhile, Jong-su has to go back north to look after the family home by himself while his father stands trial for assaulting a public servant in anger. Weird stuff happens when you’re alone in the countryside, especially at night.

Hae-mi returns with rich and handsome playboy Ben (Steven Yeun) in tow, yet she asks Jong-su to join them on their dates and activities. He, for ambiguous reasons, never turns her down, and silently withstands the provocatively comparative glances she frequently throws his way. Ben finds all of this amusing; his aloofness and narcissism, even sociopathy, places him a cut above the rest, even more than his Porsche does. Many reviewers credit the subtle yet devastating interactions among the three to Lee’s precise acting, but though he’s excellent, the emotional complexity is conveyed owing mostly to the direction: blocking, angles, editing.

One night at a gathering of Ben’s friends, he yawns while listening to Hae-mi recount a story about her time in Africa. The next evening, the couple unexpectedly stop by Jong-su’s old place and share a cannabis-fuelled transcendent moment with a gorgeous angle of the setting sun (from cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo), and some Miles Davis to boot. Jong-su opens up to Ben about his mother walking out, and Ben reciprocates by admitting that, every two months or so, he burns down one of the many abandoned greenhouses that dot the cold Korean farmscape. In fact, he plans to torch another one the next day, in this very area.

Rattled, Jong-su wakes early every day to check on the surrounding greenhouses, but they’re all still there. Hae-mi, on the other hand, is gone, leaving behind an empty cell phone number and a pristine, catless room. After a week of following Ben around, Jong-su interrogates him, only to receive a quadruple shock: Ben (1) admits to burning another greenhouse, (2) tells him how much he means to Hae-mi, and (3) denies in weirdly lyrical terms knowing anything about Hae-mi’s whereabouts—and (4) he has a new girlfriend (Soo-Kyung Kim). Jong-su seeks out Hae-mi’s family and learns that she was kicked out for credit card debt; they also deny a story that she told involving a well, a story involving Jong-su but which he, too, cannot recall. Funnily enough, Jong-su’s mother (Hye-ra Ban) suddenly shows up asking for money to pay off her credit card debts, and she does remember the well.

Jong-su gets made while staking out Ben’s place and is invited up for another gathering of friends. Ben has a new cat that answers to Hae-mi’s cat’s name; Jong-su finds a popular watch Hae-mi wears hidden in the bathroom. During the after-dinner conversation, as Ben’s new girlfriend tells an amusing story, Jong-su catches Ben yawning. The ending I’ll leave for you to experience.

Let’s take stock: Hae-mi has a cat that never shows, but Ben’s cat answers to the same name; Ben plans to set a greenhouse alight and says he has done so, but all the greenhouses are still intact; Haemi disappears without a trace, and Ben treats his new girlfriend in exactly the same way; some people say there was a well, but others say there wasn’t. It’s a very Mulholland Drive (2001)-slash-Vertigo (1958) kind of situation, thanks in no small part to sparing use of a tense, sometimes jarring score.

So what’s really going on here? While noting that the film is perfectly enjoyable in this Heisenbergian state, I point the inquisitive viewer to the penultimate scene, in which Jong-su is seen typing in Hae-mi’s apartment, despite the fact that the entry code was changed and the landlady seemed very reluctant about letting him in once before. The scene would suggest that certain parts of the story are in fact the novel that he’s writing—a structure akin to the Nicolas Cage vehicle Next (2007). As for which parts are real and which are realized through the imaginative power of creative writing? I have a hunch or two—look, for instance, at how cleanly the issue of the well divides the characters, and at how movingly Jong-su describes the incident to Hae-mi’s family, despite not being able to remember it (assuming it happened at all).

Perhaps the biggest clue is the tonal shift halfway through the film, from drama to thriller. The crime thriller is a notoriously plot-centric genre, and if my hunches hold true, then the story that Jong-su writes reflects not only his need for narrative impetus, but also his inescapable concerns with class and career. His father’s lawyer (Sung-Keun Moon) says that every protagonist is crazy; curiously, this film’s crazy protagonists have nothing on how crazy the viewer may feel in trying to separate fiction from metafiction.

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