Burning (2018) Analysis – Clash of the Classes


Burning or Boening is a 2018 South Korean film directed by Lee Chang-dong, based on the short story, Barn Burning by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. However, the film Burning has little to do with the short story by Murakami, except for the basic plot which underlines a conventional “boy meets and loses the girl” story.

The film narrates the story of the main protagonist, Jong-Su, who meets a girl, Hae-mi from his hometown, and probably falls in love with her, until a Gatsby figure, Ben dashingly enters the story and steals away Hae-mi. Jong-Su tries to meet Hae-mi, a few weeks after, only to find out that she has disappeared mysteriously and our Great Gatsby is dating a new girl.

Initially, Jong-Su is convinced that Hae-mi has left the country to fulfill her desires to travel far off lands but her sudden absence makes him suspicious about Ben, who might have hurt Hae-mi, the mystery he keeps on trailing till the end. But Burning has much more to contribute to its layers than what meets the eye of the viewer. So let’s explore what surrealism the film beholds.

Jong-Su (Protagonist) and Ben (Antagonist) – Clash of the Classes.

Jong-Su is a silent protagonist who aspires to become a writer but is trapped in the desperate longings and a life filled with sum of losses. His father is on trial for thrashing a government official and his mother left him in his childhood. Jong-Su follows the pattern of class conflicts and the burden of livelihood suffered by every middle-class guy, who is trying to break the chains of the mechanical life. But despite all his efforts, he is a slave to his own fate, and thus falls flat.

On the other hand, Ben, who is introduced to Jong-Su by Hae-mi, whom she met while traveling to Africa, is probably a rich guy, who roams around in most expensive cars. Ben belongs to the other end of the class conflict who isn’t affected by the ironies of daily life. As he speaks to his own mother in one scene, “wealthiness is a part of superior genetics.”

The huge difference in wealth and lifestyle creates a sense of Jealousy in Jong-Su which pushes him to be more lonely, as Hae-mi finally chooses Ben over Jong-Su. Jong-Su curses his own fate internally while Ben is unaffected by such worries because it’s hard to understand such trivial conflicts when you have never faced any.

Ambiguity, Paradox, Duality, and Doubt plays an important role in the film as the director has tried to keep a balance between reality and fiction. Jong-Su throughout the film is trying to segregate reality and fiction, as he understands that people speak in riddles which have the essence of both reality and fiction but it is quite not clearly perceived by normal people like us or Jong-Su as for the matter of fact. The dialogues of Ben and Hae-mi’s story of her travel and existence of her cat, create such surrealist moments for Jong-Su who, just like us, is trying to decipher what could be the meaning of those expressions.

Jong-Su ambitions to become a writer is evident from his investigative behavior and observing people’s actions, as his virtues are affected by even minute gestures of the other characters, thus depicting a more vulnerable protagonist, who can be molded very easily, while Ben is tougher as a character, and acts more as an influencer than the one who gets influence which clearly showcases his power status in the society.

Ben, when he visits Jong-Su’s farm with Hae-mi quotes that, “the world is mysterious” which Ben listens to very attentively depicting that as an audience we are psychologically trying to unveil that mystery, we are curious about it while a particular section of the society, Specifically the rich are content with whatever the world is, as they are only interested in burning it down. Ben’s addiction to hold a supreme power and Become God is evident with the dialogue,

“It takes less than 10 minutes to burn it all down, you can make it disappear as it never existed”

and finally justifying his actions, saying,

“What is right and wrong – just the morals of Nature.”

Ben thinks (and the rich might agree to it) that the world revolves around him, and not the other way around.

The line in this conversation is the symbolic theme of the film. Ben quotes that his burning desire is to burn barns ( greenhouse plants), and he is soon going to burn one, near Jong-Su’s house. The dialogue is vaguely received by Jong-Su initially but a slave to his own investigative curious behavior he starts checking out all the greenhouse plants every morning near his house to find out traces of Ben’s actions but fails to notice any of the Bruning.

After Hae-mi’s disappearance, Jong- Su curiously investigates Ben about the greenhouse, to which Ben speaks that he has already done it,

“Sometimes you can’t see things that are right in front of you.”

With this line, Jong-Su finally starts linking up the loose ends and solving the mysteries of Ben’s deceiving words.

Breaking the Chain or Resigning to Fate?

Jong-Su, unlike Ben who is content with his wealthy lifestyle, is trying to break the chain. A pattern is set by his father, as Jong-Su’s mother leaves him lonely in his childhood and reacting to it, his father burns down her mother’s clothes in angst to eradicate her existence.

Jong-Su is exposed to the same fate and is doomed to react in a particular way which is apparent in the story. When Ben takes away Jong-Su’s love interest Hae-mi, Jong-Su confronts Ben in the end and burns down the remains – to break-free from the memories of Hae-mi or maybe to avenge her disappearance.

Jong-Su getting naked and burning his clothes in the last scene, is an act of escaping his guilt and being born once more but he is bound to repeat the pattern again, which is undoubtedly inevitable in his case now.

In Murakami’s style – Burning leaves you with Haunting Thoughts.

Burning explores the idea of pattern in human behavior which we have derived from our father or forefathers and thus are bound to make the same mistakes again and again, as there is no way to break out of the chains of fate, especially for the poor middle-class people like us.

For a film like Burning, there’s more to it than meets the eye, and thus that is what makes it a very important film for cinephiles around the world. Hope you all enjoy the film, as I did.

Burning is the first film directed by Lee in eight years and was premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d’Or and ended up receiving the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Prize at the festival. It is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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