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Festival de Cannes 72 Countdown: Beoning / Burning, 2018

We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.

Beoning /Burning, 2018


Prix Vulcain de l’Artiste Technicien – Shin Joom-hee (art direction)

There are just some films that stay with you long after the screen has faded to black, like a haunting dream that you can’t quite shake off. Beoning (Burning) is one of these films. In fact, you could say that this film burns itself into your mind, the memory of it smoldering away. On the surface Burning is a slow thriller with a nasty, gut-punching ending which leaves you in complete and utter shock.

But, if we peel back this film then we realise that there is so much more to this film then just a well-crafted thriller. Burning is a tale of the corruption of wealth; our obsession with consumerism; a lost generation searching for meaning in the world; the problematic nature of the male gaze; and the challenging nature of gender roles.

Burning is based on the short story “Barn Burning” from The Elephant Vanishes. A collection of 17 short stories by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, written between 1980 and 1991. The film follows recent Creative Language graduate Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) who performs odd jobs in Paju. Jong-su’s life seems aimless, he is simply existing from day to day.

We know only the very basic information regarding Jong-su, it is never established whether he has any friends or a social life of any kind. His relationship with his father is strained and we discover that Jong-su’s father, a bovine farmer, got tangled in disagreeable legal affairs, and as a result Jong-su has had to return to the farm to take care of one lonely cow.

“There are just some films that stay with you long after the screen has faded to black, like a haunting dream that you can’t quite shake off. Beoning (Burning) is one of these films.”

One day he just happens to run into Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood neighbor and a former classmate whom he does not remember at first. She tells him she had plastic surgery and as a result she is now what society judges as ”attractive”. The two of them go drinking, and Hae-mi talks at great length her upcoming trip to Africa.

She has a favour to ask him and would like him to feed her cat while she is away. Before Hae-mi leaves, they sleep together. Jong-su is completely besotted with Hae-mi. He spends his days feeding her cat (that he never sees), and masturbating in her apartment (as you do).

Upon arriving home, Jong-su discovers that Hae-mi has made a new friend, the charismatic and charming Ben (Steven Yeun). Ben is of a different social class to both Jong-su and Hae-mi. Jong-su suspects something off about Ben, especially when he reveals he doesn’t cry. Alarms begin to ring when Ben reveals that he has a very unusual hobby which involves setting old greenhouses on fire. Ben may seem harmless on the surface, but he has a potential dark side to him. Or perhaps Jong-su jealousy is making him paranoid?

There’s a chilliness to Yeun’s performance as Ben. His smile never quite matches his eyes. Ben is a complex character who seems to be suffering from affluenza, coming from a life of privilege and never being held accountable for his actions. He may seem friendly towards Jong-su and Hae-mi but he often seems too fake. Her oozes charm. So much so, that Jong-su refers to him as Gatsby, a man who uses deceit to get whatever he desires. But, what is that Ben truly desires?

“Oh Jung-mi and Lee Chang-dong’s clever screenplay manages to weave together this story, keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat.”

And as the film progresses and certain information is revealed, we become just as paranoid as Jong-su. The two male leads share some key scenes together, and on first glance the scenes seem rather mundane, with many of their shared scenes being exchange of dialogue. Then we begin to look closer. We become detectives trying to see if either man has a secret they’re struggling to hide, and whether their body language will give the game away.

It is understandable why Hae-mi is drawn to Ben, as he is a confident, free spirited young man. Hae-mi wants to be just as free spirited as Ben, but she is caught up in her own past. She mimics her way through life, getting plastic surgery and going to Africa to find her ‘big hunger’. Is it any surprise that we discover that she attends a mime class? Jeon Jong-seo manages to capture this lost, lonely young woman who is just trying to find someone to love her.

In a lot of ways Yoo Ah-in’s Jong-su shares similar traits to Andrew Garfield’s Sam from Under the Silver Lake. Both are frustrated young men who lack any real purpose in their lives. Until they meet a young woman who seems to offer them escape from their unexpectional lives. Like Sam in Under the Silver Lake, Jong-su is denied any chance of actual happiness, but he is partly to blame for not overcoming his faults. Jong-su isn’t assertive enough to tell Hae-mi exactly how he feels, and as a result he loses her to a stronger alpha male.

“Jeon Jong-seo manages to capture this lost, lonely young woman.”

However, just like Sam, Jong-su doesn’t regard Hae-mi as her own individual person who has their own free will, thoughts and desires. Although not as misogynistic as Sam is, Jong-su holds some grudges and old-fashioned opinions towards the opposite sex. When, Hae-mi dances topless in front of Ben and Jong-su, he responds by calling her a whore. His jealousy gets the better of him. Rather than face that problem, he lashes out and belittles Hae-mi.

We come to realise that Jong-su has learned from his father that it is acceptable to take your frustrations out on women as when Jong-su’s mother left him, he and his father burned all of her clothes. Burning is showing us that the actions of the past shape who we become, and that we must break the cycle or be doomed to repeat history.

Oh Jung-mi and Lee Chang-dong’s clever screenplay manages to weave together this story, keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat. Information is slowly fed to us so we are never truly aware of what has been occuring, until the shocking ending. Yes, it is a slow film but the payoff is so worth the wait. Often the thriller genre feels stale and repetitive, so Burning with its twists and turns, is the film that so many of us have been anticipating.

Burning still holds up to multiple viewings, because it’s not really about one particular mystery regarding a missing young woman. The film is dealing with a much bigger mystery…what is our purpose in life?


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