How Burning Captures the Toll of Extreme Inequality in South Korea

Lee Chang-dong’s new film paints a deft and intimate portrait of a young generation beset by economic desperation.

Yoo Ah-in as Jong-su in 'Burning'
Yoo Ah-in as Jong-su in Burning (WELL GO USA)

This article contains spoilers for the plot of the film Burning.

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, a promising contender in the Foreign Language Film Oscar race, takes place in two South Koreas. The first is a country of leisure, where 20- and 30-somethings stroll through elegant cafés and bob to K-pop club bangers. The second faces ongoing economic turmoil. Billions of dollars constitute the average household debt, millions of citizens have gone to the streets to overthrow a president cozy with conglomerate interests, and hundreds of thousands of young people remain jobless. Burning brings to focus the clash between these two countries through the life of a working-class man named Jong-su (played by Yoo Ah-in).

Jong-su is a silent, masculine type whose life is a sum of losses. His hometown of Paju is one of many small-town regions in South Korea facing overwhelming change amid urbanization. His mother abandoned the family when Jong-su was a child, returning only to request money from her unemployed son. His father faces trial for assaulting a local government official, leaving Jong-su with the neglected family house and a diminished cattle farm. Even when Jong-su wins the affection of his childhood acquaintance Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), he quickly loses this fledgling romance to a wealthy urbanite named Ben (Steven Yeun).

Throughout the film, Jong-su scuttles between Paju—a mere checkpoint away from the demilitarized zone—and Seoul, hoping to salvage his relationship with Hae-mi and monitor the ever mysterious Ben. With its striking juxtapositions between the rural and urban, embodied by Jong-su and Ben, Burning rejects the glamorization of Asian wealth and the notion of a universal Asian identity, as recently depicted onscreen in Crazy Rich Asians. Instead, Lee concentrates his film on the extreme class inequality in South Korea, underscoring the economic desperation that destroys families, ravages homes, and consumes dispossessed individuals.

Burning takes its basic plot line of boy-meets-and-loses-girl from Haruki Murakami’s 1992 short story “Barn Burning.” In both the film and the original story, the male protagonist loses a love interest from his hometown to a Gatsby figure with a penchant for arson. When the beloved vanishes without a trace, the protagonist suspects the new boyfriend is to blame. But unlike Jong-su, Murakami’s narrator is a middle-class man who lives on the outskirts of Tokyo and remains indifferent to the world around him. He can afford to detach from material and emotional concerns; Jong-su, meanwhile, cannot. Appropriately, while Burning follows Jong-su as he crisscrosses South Korea in search of Ben and Hae-mi, Murakami’s “Barn Burning” slices away the physical details of the story’s urban setting, situating the ultimately unvexed narrator in a cosmopolitan way of life.

Ben shares the rootlessness of Murakami’s style when he asserts a personal philosophy of “simultaneous existence.” “I’m here and I’m there,” he explains to Jong-su in one of many patronizing conversations. “I’m in Paju, and I’m in Banpo. I’m in Seoul. At the same time, I’m in Africa.” Ben never reveals how he supports this lifestyle, but he owns a Porsche and a high-rise apartment in Seoul’s wealthiest district; he clearly isn’t hurting for money. Ben’s identification with the global elite dovetails with his Americanness, as suggested by his unusual name and accent. When he extends his hand for a casual (American) handshake and Jong-su bows, as per Korean custom, this moment further marks Ben as a flaneur who comfortably maintains distance from society.

The external setting of Burning speaks to its characters’ hidden biographies. Ben’s nonchalance indicates the control afforded by his wealth. His dissociative coldness maps onto his immaculate Gangnam apartment. Jong-su’s impassivity, on the other hand, is a defense mechanism that holds at bay familial drama, financial woes, and heartbreak. His barely concealed anxiety manifests in his family’s farmhouse, the rooms of which overflow with dirty dishes, instant-ramen containers, and old photographs that conjure jarring memories.

It is on Jong-su’s turf, during Ben and Hae-mi’s visit to Paju, that the two men hold a conversation that develops into a tit-for-tat showdown. While Hae-mi is asleep, Jong-su reveals that he hates his abusive father, who had once forced him to set his mother’s belongings ablaze. Ben offers no words of condolences. Instead, he casually boasts about being a serial arsonist. The real reason for his visit is not to see Hae-mi’s hometown, as she believes, but to “scout” another greenhouse for burning. Ben explains that he never gets caught because “Korean police don’t pay attention to those sorts of things.” The nature of these secrets emphasizes just how different the men’s worlds are: Jong-su is trapped by trauma, while Ben wreaks havoc without consequence. This disparity is reflected in other scenes, too: We see Ben smoking marijuana (a highly banned substance in South Korea) and speeding in his Porsche. Yet it is Jong-su who is stared down by two Seoul policemen for simply loitering in his pickup truck.

Jong-su’s paternal angst is a significant detail that connects back to the inspiration for Murakami’s short story, William Faulkner’s 1939 “Barn Burning.” Set in the stratified American South of the 1890s, the story follows a poor white boy who must decide where his loyalties lie—with his abusive arsonist father, or with an indifferent law. But if Jong-su at first appears as the dutiful, law-abiding son in contrast to the previous man of the house, everything changes after his final moments with Hae-mi. When Hae-mi disconnects her phone and then vanishes without a trace, Jong-su suspects Ben is to blame yet lacks enough evidence. Unlike Faulkner’s protagonist, Jong-su ultimately decides to take justice into his own hands and begins stalking Ben.

The devolution of psychological obsession into a cat-and-mouse hunt allows for a remarkable cinematic revision of Murakami’s aesthetic of placelessness. Lee’s camera follows Jong-su and Ben as they snake through the well-paved streets of glittering Seoul which, by day’s end, transform into the dirt paths that cut through Paju’s hills. These lengthy takes play out the irreconcilable distance between urban wealth and rural dispossession, conjuring a vastness that speaks not to endless possibility or to Ben’s “simultaneous existence”—but rather to Jong-su’s all-consuming despair.

The tragedy of Burning is that luxuries of imagination are reserved, first and foremost, for wealthy men. When asked about his career, Ben tells Jong-su, “Even if I said it, you wouldn’t understand. To put it simply, I ‘play.’” Lee establishes the irony: Ben can spin lies and blithely commit crimes while Hae-mi and Jong-su, by the film’s end, must abandon their dreams of turning their own innocuous artistic interests into careers. At the start of the movie, Hae-mi explains to Jong-su, over soju and beer at a pojangmacha, that she has been taking pantomime classes. She goes silent, gulps air, and peels imaginary fruit, explaining to a puzzled Jong-su, “Whenever I feel like eating, I can always eat a clementine.” While she admits that not everyone can be an actor, pantomime offers a fantastical abundance of resources—endless clementines for Hae-mi, an outlet for financial and social escape.

Though Hae-mi is a captivating storyteller and tenacious pantomime, Ben and his snooty friends scorn her earnest attempts at living out her creative dreams. But when Jong-su discloses that he’s a writer, they interpret this aspect of his identity as some index of social capital. Some film reviewers have noted that Jong-su is only a writer by name; there’s no evidence to the contrary, as he spends only a fraction of his screen time at a keyboard. Yet Jong-su’s status as a writer is crucial to his character. When Ben suggests Jong-su write a story about Ben’s life, and when a lawyer advises Jong-su to write a novel about his father, Jong-su rejects these advances. Instead, he writes on his own terms, feverishly drafting a petition in a last-ditch attempt to rescue his father from jail.

Jong-su’s act of writing suggests that the burden of protecting a home from political and economic change ultimately supersedes his aspiration to use writing as an act of imagination. Even as he lacks the stability, resources, and connections to turn his novel-writing fantasy into reality, the film, as a work of expression and documentation, picks up where he leaves off. Like the directors Wong Kar-Wai and Edward Yang, who have trained an impressionistic eye on politically tumultuous Hong Kong in the 1960s and the post-industrial Taiwan of the 1980s, respectively, Lee (a former novelist) applies a similarly patient, artistic gaze that takes in extreme class stratifications in present-day South Korea.

By the end of the film, Jong-su has sold his family’s last calf. His petition fails to rescue his father. But if Jong-su has forfeited his livelihood and lost the relationships most familiar to him, Hae-mi’s sense of shelter and stability is even more fraught, in large part because Hae-mi is a woman. She is no Rachel Chu, who, in Crazy Rich Asians, can ultimately maintain a loving relationship with her immigrant mother, keep her tenured professorship in New York, and marry into Singapore’s upper echelons. Rather, Hae-mi severs her ties with her Paju family and flits from gig to dead-end gig. She has likely squandered her life savings traveling overseas, and her boyfriend, Ben, may be a serial killer. Her eventual disappearance can possibly be read as her final hurrah as a pantomime, her defiant magnum opus in a cruel world. But it’s also tragic: When Jong-su notifies Hae-mi’s loved ones, they are unsurprised, and suggest that she must have run away to escape her crippling debt. No missing-persons report is ever filed.

Jong-su may care immensely about Hae-mi, but their friendship is bookended by the devastating harm he inflicts on her in formative moments. During childhood, he calls her ugly, driving her to shell out for plastic surgery years later. Then, right before her disappearance, Jong-su calls her a whore for dancing topless. In between these cruelties, he unleashes his frustrations of maternal absence—loss of mother, loss of motherland—by invading Hae-mi’s space (initially while cat-sitting), even masturbating under her window while gazing out at Seoul’s iconic Namsan Tower. “There is no country for women,” Hae-mi’s female coworker laments, drawing attention to the fact that the women are expected to alter their identity, body, and space to fulfill others’ needs.

In the middle of the film, Hae-mi returns to Paju, only to find her childhood home demolished. But she finds its likeness while standing inside Jong-su’s house just down the road. “It’s like I’m at home,” she marvels, revealing a grim truth: Any two people can live in the same country, even the same town, and have clashing material experiences of home. If this is overly obvious, one need only remember that Burning arrives in a Hollywood that still struggles with meaningful portrayals of Asian and Asian-diasporic lived experiences. Often the industry prefers to collapse histories of colonization, overlook ongoing wealth inequality, and ignore diverging cultural mores in over-the-top celebrations of Asian unity and representation.

This is not to say that Hae-mi, Jong-su, and Ben do not engage in escapism and imagination as destructive tactics. But Burning never entertains the possibility of disgruntled youth assimilating into South Korea’s upper crust. Home cannot be restored—but neither can it be a fantastical, cosmopolitan world when Hae-mi’s childhood house has been reduced to rubble and when Jong-su grew up with an abusive father and no mother.

During his earlier fateful visit to Jong-su’s house, Ben finds himself sitting in a dusty front yard, battered with North Korean propaganda blasting from a speaker nearby. He courteously comments that Paju “isn’t bad,” but Hae-mi dismisses his phony grace and quips, “Except for the smell of cow pat.” She and Jong-su burst into laughter, while Ben smiles like a blank fool. Though Ben sees all of rural South Korea as a field of “dirty greenhouses,” and though Paju diminishes in the national and global landscape, economy, and memory, Burning offers this fleeting moment—a shared nod to the smell of dung—to affirm that the particularities of home and geography do matter after all.