The Mysterious Conversation That Creates an Obsession in Burning

Ah-in Yoo, Jong-seo Jun, and Steven Yeun in 'Burning'
Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo, and Steven Yeun in <i>Burning</i>Well Go USA

The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series delves into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy cinematic moment from 2018. Next up is Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. (Read our previous entries here.)

“My father has an anger disorder. He has rage bottled up inside of him. It goes off like a bomb. Once it goes off, everything is destroyed.” So begins a confession of sorts from Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an introverted, pent-up writer living on his father’s farm, trying vainly to write. It’s a confession he makes to the poised, handsome Ben (Steven Yeun), an enigmatic businessman who’s dating Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), the girl Jong-su has a lingering crush on. And it’s quickly followed by a much stranger revelation from Ben, one that’s at the center (literally and figuratively) of Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s woozy, beguiling mystery thriller.

In talking about his now-imprisoned father’s nasty temper, Jong-su recalls the day his mother abandoned the family, fleeing her abusive husband. “I burned all her clothes,” Jong-su says, laughing. “Sometimes I burn down greenhouses,” Ben replies, looking absentmindedly into the horizon. “It’s a crime, so to speak.” The two of them are sitting on a porch, stoned, and Hae-mi, the joint object of their affection, is sleeping in the house behind them. Jong-su’s memory suggests a lifetime of buried anger and deep-seated issues planted by his parents’ relationship, things the viewer might have guessed already. Ben’s admission is far, far more inscrutable.

Recommended Reading

But then, that’s the dynamic between the pair. Jong-su is a simmering cauldron of resentment, class envy, and sexual frustration; Ben is a blank canvas, a suave charmer who seems like a catch one moment and a creep the next. What he tells Jong-su is borderline nonsensical: He scouts out abandoned greenhouses in rural areas such as this one, sprays some kerosene, and lights a match, delighting in the wanton destruction. “You can make it disappear as if it never existed,” he tells a disbelieving Jong-su. “It’s like they’re all waiting for me to burn them down.”

An adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, Burning is a narrative about the male ego’s many forms, and Ben’s destructive impulses suggest that he takes a childlike thrill in the freedom he possesses. But the way he describes his hobby—carefully selecting a greenhouse and burning it every couple of months—sounds almost like a metaphor for the work of a serial killer, hunting and stalking his prey. Jong-su eventually convinces himself that’s exactly what Ben was talking about after Hae-mi disappears. But the only real evidence the viewer has is this conversation; it is, without question, the most arresting exchange of dialogue in a movie this year.

Lee and his cinematographer, Hong Kyung-pyo, shoot the sequence like a fading dream; as the two chat, the sun dims in the sky, and the entire scene is bathed in blue twilight. Yeun plays Ben as so calm and collected that his story feels extremely mundane, like he’s talking about the weather or what to have for breakfast tomorrow. It only makes the confession seem that much stranger. In talking about his father, Jong-su was baring his soul; in offering this reply, Ben seems to be exposing the lack of one. “As I watch them burn to the ground, I feel great joy,” he says, with a hint of a smile.

Maybe Ben really does just like to burn greenhouses (though Jong-su finds no evidence of such). But even then, there’s something deeply unsettling about a wealthy, charismatic man engaging in needless destruction just to feel alive. Though Jong-su is no saint, he is at least an artist trying to engage in the act of creativity, whereas Ben is seemingly thrilled by nothing at all. But his blunt nihilism does reflect the blank heartlessness that, in Jong-su’s eyes, comes with being rich and powerful. It gives the entire conversation the feel of a fantasy, as though Ben is suddenly animated with an evil that only Jong-su can perceive. Their cryptic exchange is enough to lead the latter half of Lee’s film down a violent and corrosive path. But it’s just as easy to imagine that Ben’s confession never happened at all.

Previously: A Star Is Born

Next Up: Widows