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Film / Burning (2018)

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"To me... the world is a mystery."
"Sometimes I burn down greenhouses. I choose an abandoned greenhouse and set it on fire. You can make it disappear... as if it never existed."

Burning is a 2018 South Korean drama by Lee Chang-dong. It is based on the short story "Barn Burning" (1983) by Haruki Murakami. Which is itself inspired by the short story by William Faulkner.

Lee Jong-su is a young man who does small jobs and wants to be a writer. One day he meets up with Shin Hae-mi, a young woman from the same countryside town where he grew up. They have dinner, he accepts to feed her cat during her incoming vacation in Africa, and they have sex in her apartment. He grows fond of her.

When she comes back from Africa, she has met a new friend named Ben (Steven Yeun). He is quite wealthy and is mysterious about what he does for a living. She hangs out with him a lot, while Lee Jong-su has left the city to take care of his father's farm. One day they visit him at the farm, and Ben tells him about his secret hobby: he burns greenhouses.

Lee Jong-su worries about the greenhouses around his farm, and gets into the habit of visiting them, possibly in the hope of catching Ben when he attempts to burn one. Then one day, Shin Hae-mi disappears.

Previews: Teaser, Trailer.


  • Above Good and Evil: Ben states that he doesn't believe in right or wrong, claiming to adhere only to the "morals of nature."
  • Abusive Parents: Jong-su's father has a severe anger disorder that causes him to have violent outbursts. It caused Jong-su's mother to leave the family and take his sister with her, and eventually leads to his own arrest when he violently assaults a government worker. Jong-su mentions an incident soon after his mother left, where his father forced him to take all of his mother's clothes out of the house and burn them on a huge bonfire, traumatizing him for life.
  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The short story ends with Jong-su having no idea what happened to Hae-mi, with Ben getting away with everything. In the film, Jong-su realizes Ben is a murderer (or at least believes so) and kills him.
  • Adaptational Karma: In Barn Burning, the Ben character faces no consequences and likely continues to murder women with impunity for years. Even the narrator doesn't admit to himself what really happened. Here, Jong-su kills Ben after becoming convinced he killed Hae-mi, though it's never explicitly confirmed if he did.
  • Ambiguous Ending: We see Jong-su writing in a computer in Hae-mi's apartment right before it cuts to a scene in Ben's perspective (throughout the whole movie the focus is mostly in Jong-su) and then the last scene, in which Jong-su stabs Ben, leaving the implication that it could be just Jong-su fantasizing of avenging Hae-mi supposed murder.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Apart from the ending, there are other plot points left ambiguous.
    • It's never explained who keeps calling Jong-su's house in the middle of the night and hanging up. It's implied to have been Jong-su's mother, who calls him after 16 years of estrangement in the second act, but she's so blasé about their reunion (even getting distracted by text messages) that it doesn't seem likely that she'd have spent weeks or months working up the nerve to speak to him.
    • Whether many of Hae-mi's stories are real.
      • Does Boil exist? Jong-su never sees the cat after weeks of feeding him in spite of Hae-mi's apartment being tiny. We conspicuously never see Boil's food or litter bowl after the first time Jong-su checks them, so the viewer cannot compare whether the levels are changing between his visits. Hae-mi's neighbor insists that pets aren't allowed in the apartment, but Hae-mi could be breaking the rules. The fact that Ben's stray seems to answer to the name Boil might suggest that it's him, but it might have just been a coincidence. Hardly any real housecats answer to their name.
      • Did Hae-mi fall down a well? Jong-su doesn't remember finding her like she claims. Her family says that no well was near their house, and if it had happened, they'd have known about it, but it's possible that it was kept from them or they were ignoring her. They don't seem fond of her. Another neighbor also doesn't remember a well being in the area. Jong-su's mother, however, remembers a dry well being near her house, which might explain why no one else knew about or remembered it.
      • Did Jong-su really call her ugly? He has no recollection of it, like most of her claims that involve other people.
    • Whether Ben is a murderer and murdered Hae-mi.
      • His talk about burning greenhouses certainly seems to be a Deadly Euphemism, and his insistence on having burned a greenhouse "very near" to Jong-su would coincide with Hae-mi's disappearance. Jong-su is convinced that no actual greenhouses have been burned near his home, but he could be mistaken. Ben insists that he leaves no trace of the greenhouses he burns, but that could actually be bragging about selecting the right victims and disposing of the bodies. He says Hae-mi vanished "like a puff of smoke" after all.
      • He won't reveal what he does for a living, saying that Jong-su and Hae-mi wouldn't understand if he explained it. We never see him working. It's possible that he's simply a trust-fund baby with a big ego and no real responsibilities. He also might live by stealing from his victims. He does say that "play" and "work" are the same to him. It would also explain Hae-mi's apartment clean-up as being his attempt to fleece her of her wealth. Hae-mi is actually broke, but he might not have known that, given that she just went on an African safari. However, if he were trying to target rich women, that would go against his implied Deadly Euphemism of abandoned greenhouses being vulnerable and ignored women, and if he were targeting poor women, it seems unlikely that he would get much money.
      • Hae-mi vanishes inexplicably. She leaves all her possessions behind, including her suitcase, so it's unlikely that she took a trip. Her cat is gone, but it might never have existed. Her apartment has been thoroughly cleaned, which Jong-su says is unlike her, given that she made no effort to do so before going to Africa. It's possible that she was murdered, and Ben straightened her bedroom to remove all trace of him and stole her cat as a trophy. It's also possible she skipped town, given that she had debts and no friends except Ben and Jong-su, but you would think that she'd take more possessions with her. Ben says that she thought Jong-su was the only person on her side, and the last thing he said to her was hurtful, so she might even have committed suicide given her mental health issues, which might explain her out-of-character cleanliness.
    • What is Hae-mi's actual attitude toward Ben and Jong-su? She asks a lot of favors of Jong-su and has sex with him, and she seems to prefer hanging around Ben more due to his jet-set lifestyle, but she never shows any overt romantic interest in him. Is she just using them both, or is she too socially clueless to realize what she's doing? Did she really tell Ben that Jong-su is the only person she trusts, or did he make that up to torment Jong-su? She seems to have some sort of attachment to him but certainly doesn't behave like he's her one true confidante.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Jong-su admits that he loves Hae-mi in the midst of a stoned conversation with Ben. Ben just chuckles.
  • The Beautiful Elite: Ben and his upper-class friends are all fashionable and very attractive people.
  • The Bluebeard: Ben is implied to have made a habit out of seducing poor women and then killing them, taking small souvenirs from their possessions while he's at it.
  • Broken Bird: Hae-mi is carrying around a lot of depression and trauma from her childhood.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: One of the film's central themes. Jong-su and Hae-mi are both adrift in life because they have no clue what to do with themselves in the highly competitive and consumerist environment of South Korea. A point is made to show the skyrocketing levels of unemployment in the country, especially among young men like Jong-su, while Hae-mi casually mentions getting plastic surgery to make herself prettier so that more people will want to hire her. This is in contrast to Ben, a clear sociopath who prospers precisely because he's willing to literally rob and murder people to obtain his wealth, though, adding a particular wrinkle to this, he seems to specifically target poor and lower-class women than the wealthy ones he hangs out with.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Ben tells Lee Jong-su that he burns greenhouses as a hobby. And that he has found a perfect one around him.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Jong-su is shown looking at his father's knife collection in an early scene. At the end of the film, he uses one of the knives to kill Ben.
    • The pink watch. Jong-su gives it to Hae-mi at the beginning of the film, and finds it in the possession of Ben well after she's disappeared. This one of several clues that convince Jong-su that Ben killed her.
    • Jong-su notes that Ben has a woman's make-up kit in his bathroom, just above his drawer of women's trinkets. At the end of the film, Ben very purposefully takes the kit out and applies make-up to his current girlfriend's face. We don't see her again, implying this might be part of Ben's killing ritual.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Boil, the cat that Jong-su takes care of while Hae-mi is in Africa, is frequently mentioned but never shows himself to Jong-su when he comes to feed him. Towards the end of the film, Boil disappears from Hae-mi's apartment and Ben, who previously didn't own any pets, has adopted a stray cat – which responds to Boil's name when Jong-su calls it. This convinces Jong-su that Ben murdered Hae-mi and took her cat as a trophy.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Between childhood neighbours. Their romance is quite one-sided, as Shin Hae-mi had sex with Lee Jong-su once, then seems to think of him as just a friend. See Unrequited Love Switcheroo below.
  • Classical Anti-Hero: Jong-su is awkward, antisocial, and somewhat possessive and perverted towards Hae-mi.
  • Commie Land: The farm is very close to the DPRK border. Loud propaganda can often be heard at night.
  • Covert Pervert: Jong-su masturbates in Hae-mi's apartment while she's away without her knowledge.
  • Creepy Souvenir: Ben keeps small items such as bracelets, watches, and earrings in a secret box in his bathroom, which are implied to be from the women he's murdered. When Jong-su visits after Hae-mi's disappearance, he finds the pink watch he gave to her in there, convincing him that Ben killed her. Ben also apparently adopts her cat.
  • Deadly Euphemism: It is implied that Ben's talk about burning greenhouses is actually a metaphor for murdering young women. He even states that he only destroys abandoned greenhouses (meaning social outcasts like Hae-mi who have been rejected and deemed useless by society) because their loss is regarded as insignificant and the police won't bother to investigate.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Both Jong-su and Hae-mi.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Despite a brief fling before she leaves for Africa, Jong-su and Hae-mi never get to have a real relationship before her disappearance.
  • Downer Ending: Lee Jong-su murders Ben because he thinks he murdered Shin Hae-mi. But she is still no longer there, and we can't be sure that Ben is responsible for her disappearing.
  • Erotic Dream: Towards the end of the film, Jong-su fantasizes about receiving a handjob from Hae-mi while laying in her bed.
  • Fan Disservice: None of the sex and nudity in the film is particularly enticing.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Ben initially appears to be charming and polite, but it becomes increasingly obvious over the course of the story that his affability is merely a façade masking the personality of a narcissist, sociopath and possible serial killer.
  • The Flame of Life: Implied by the use of fire as an Arc Symbol. Jong-su remembers being forced to burn his mother's clothes in a fire after she left. Ben says that he burns down greenhouses, though it's heavily implied that he's talking about killing women. At the end, Jong-su burns Ben's body after killing him.
  • Forgotten Childhood Friend: Jong-su allegedly helped rescue Hae-mi from a well when they were children, only to forget about her when they both grew up. He also forgot that he ever called her ugly, if he did.
  • Foreshadowing: Ben tells metaphor to Hae-mi early in the movie, which she doesn’t understand, and then asks Jong-su to explain her, but he ignores their whole conversation. Later up in the movie Ben tells Jong-su about his hobby of burning abandoned greenhouses which he understands literally. In reality it seems to be a metaphor for killing lonely women.
  • Giggling Villain: Ben is highly amused by Jong-su and Hae-mi. He smiles and laughs amiably, but also at inappropriate moments.
  • A God Am I: Ben implicitly compares himself to a god by stating that he views cooking his favourite meals as a ritual offering to himself. During a later conversation with Jong-su, he also likens his hobby of burning greenhouses to a force of nature, stating that a flood does not care about the destruction it leaves in its wake.
  • Has a Type: Ben is evidently into lonely, abandoned lower-class women, as seen with his new girl after Hae-mi disappears, who is introduced to his rich friends in a very similar way.
  • Hotter and Sexier: Than the short story, Barn Burning. In it, the narrator is much older, married, and there's no explicit suggestion that he's attracted to the Hae-mi figure, with the two of them developing a chaste friendship. In the film, Jong-su is clearly attracted to her, masturbates in her apartment, and they have sex.
  • Hubris: Ben has a very high opinion of himself. In an early scene, he jokes with his mom that he has perfect genes. He says that Jong-su and Hae-mi wouldn't understand his work even if he tried to explain it to them. He describes cooking for himself in terms of making holy offerings to himself like a god. He tells Jong-su that he's never once been jealous of anyone until the day Hae-mi explained how much Jong-su meant to her. There's also the fact that, if he is a murderer, he not only takes Jong-su along for the ride as he's toying with Hae-mi, but he also admits his crimes to him through a euphemism, apparently expecting him to never discern his true crimes or investigate Hae-mi's disappearance.
  • Incriminating Indifference: Ben displays this after Hae-mi's disappearance, as when Jong-su tells him about it, he doesn't seem particularly worried or even concerned for her. This only fuels Jong-su's belief that Ben murdered her.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: The protagonist eventually does that.
  • Jump Scare: Ben knocks on Jong-su's car window as he's talking on the phone with him.
  • Karmic Death: Ben, who is heavily implied to have murdered Hae-mi and numerous other women, is ultimately murdered himself by Jong-su, who then disposes of the body by burning it in the same manner that Ben described earlier in the film.
  • Lack of Empathy: Ben openly admits that he cannot remember ever being sad, laughs at Jong-su when the latter admits that he is in love with Hae-mi, and shows a disturbing lack of discomfort over Hae-mi's disappearance.
  • Loser Protagonist: Jong-su is an unemployed loner with self-esteem issues and No Social Skills. His insecurity regarding the rich, charming, and mysterious Ben is visible from the first second they meet.
  • Masturbation Means Sexual Frustration: Lee Jong-su masturbates several times in Shin Hae-mi's place while she's in Africa, as he misses her.
  • Missing Mom: Jong-su's mother abandoned him for 16 years, and even when she meets up with him again, she's more interested in texting someone else than talking to him.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Lee Jong-su wants to be a writer, although he hasn't started writing yet.
  • Named by the Adaptation: No characters are named by the Murakami short story, while they are all named in the movie.
  • Nude Nature Dance: Topless, at least. After getting high with Ben and Jong-su at Jong-su's farm, Hae-mi spontaneously decides to take her shirt off and imitate the "Great Hunger" dance she saw in the Kalahari Desert.
  • Odd Friendship: Ben starts hanging out with Hae-mi, who's a far cry from his chic friends. It's all but outright stated that he enjoys entrapping "undesirable" women like her — poor, unsophisticated, and with no friends or family — and murdering them.
  • The Oner: Hae-mi's Nude Nature Dance is filmed in one continuous take.
  • Parting-Words Regret: Jong-su berates Hae-mi for taking her clothes off so easily around other men, which hurts her feelings. She disappears soon after.
  • Police Are Useless: Ben claims that it's easy to burn down greenhouses in Korea because of this.
  • Scenery Porn: Jong-su's trip with Ben and Hae-mi is rife with this, as well as the mountain lake where Jong-su spies on Ben.
  • Serial Killer: Although it is never confirmed beyond a doubt, the film strongly hints that Ben might be one. Evidence for this include his Lack of Empathy, the fact he seems to date a very specific type of women (young and naïve individuals from the lower classes with no social and familial ties and whose disappearance is unlikely to be noticed or reported to the authorities), a drawer in his bathroom containing numerous, clearly feminine trinkets (implied to be trophies taken from previous victims), and his strange monologue about burning greenhouses, in which he admits that he has a fixed routine (he only does it once every two months) and describes the act of "burning" (i.e, killing) as the only thing that truly makes him feel alive.
  • Shout-Out:
    • William Faulkner is quoted. Ben is shown reading a collection of his short stories after Lee says that Faulkner is his favorite author.
    • Lee compares Ben to Jay Gatsby since he is young and rich although no one knows where the money comes from, and notes that there are many other people like him in South Korea.
  • Smug Snake: After Hae-mi's disappearance, Ben appears to taunt Jong-su with thinly-veiled euphemisms implying that he murdered her, seemingly believing that he will get away with it because Jong-su either won't get the hint or can't prove his guilt without conclusive evidence. This turns out to be his downfall, as he underestimates Jong-su's resolve to avenge Hae-mi's murder and is ultimately stabbed to death.
  • The Social Darwinist: Ben seems to consider himself above the law, invoking Might Makes Right in order to justify his hedonistic lifestyle and criminal activities.
  • The Sociopath: Ben is a more low-key example of this trope, but he fits it to a T. He is entirely amoral, his affability is entirely false, he says he cannot remember ever being sad, and he can't help but yawn while people have fun being social around him. He makes a living manipulating women into unreciprocated relationships with him, murdering them, and taking all the money he can get from them so he can continue living in Gangnam. Still, even though he can literally get away with murder, he finds that only burning greenhouses is stimulating.
  • So Much for Stealth: Lee Jong-su stalks Ben, who lives in a wealthy neighbourhood, driving an ugly truck. Ben spots him once, but most of the time he doesn't seem to notice.
  • Stealth Expert: If Boil ever actually existed, he somehow managed to hide without a trace for weeks in a tiny room.
  • Unexplained Accent: Ben's Korean sounds completely different than the other characters'. This is because Steven Yeun is not a native Korean speaker, having left Korea when he was five and growing up in the United States. Given that Ben has a western name, he might share Yeun's background, but we get no furthers clues about his background.
  • Unrequited Love Switcheroo: Hae-mi seems to have a crush on Jong-su, stemming from him helping to rescue her when they were both children, while Jong-su is mostly interested in sex. When she returns from her trip, Jong-su actually falls in love with her, but at that point she's in Ben's web.
  • Upper-Class Twit: How Lee Jong-su views Ben, who is quite wealthy and doesn't seem to work.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Jong-su vomits after stabbing Ben to death at the end of the film.
  • "What Now?" Ending: Jong-su stabs Ben to death, and burns him inside his Porsche along with his bloodstained clothes. We see a naked Jong-su climb into his truck and start driving away, and the movie just sort of... ends.

"There is no right or wrong... just the morals of nature."