"To me, the world is a mystery"
Beoning (translation/English title - "Burning") is a Korean mystery film originally released in May, 2018. It was directed by Chang-dong Lee, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jungmi Oh. The film is based on a Japanese short story by Haruki Murakami called "Barn Burning." It was a nominee for the 2018 Palme d'Or at Cannes (if you don't know what that is, trust me, it's a big deal) and has enjoyed a litany of other awards, nominations, and critical acclaim within the small-studio/independent film scene.
Among casual and unpretentious movie fans, it is not so universally popular, and understandably so. I probably wouldn't be quite as compelled to write about the film in the first place if it wasn't for the fact that it seems to be so incredibly divisive. It is deserving of praise, as well as criticism, and having just watched the film I feel obligated (for whatever reason) to try to explain, understand, and reconcile how it is that a film can receive such high praise and still be so widely disliked. I also wanted to write about the film simply because it's so incredibly ponderous, and has left me with so much to consider.
Before we get into analysis and subsequently get into spoilers, let's outline the plot in broad strokes. The story revolves around three primary characters. Jong-su (played by Ah-In Yoo) is a mild-mannered unemployed aspiring writer who lives on his father's farm in a country village. He begins a relationship with the ditzy Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), who lived in Jong-su's village when they were children. Hae-mi returns from a visit to Africa with her new friend Ben (Steven Yeun), a charming, accommodating, and seemingly independently wealthy man a few years older than Jong-su and Hae-mi. A series of mysterious circumstances and revelations adds fuel to Jong-su's jealousy and obsession throughout the remainder of the film.
~Analysis pt. 1: Subtext (no major spoilers)
There are several substories and subplots within the film. It's difficult to objectively discern exactly what information is relevant to the "main" story of the film and what isn't. The film is deeply and consistently ambiguous. It's largely up to the viewer to determine which details are viable clues and to what they indicate. What is allegory, what is information, what is illusory, what is metaphor, and what is incidental.
Every piece of the puzzle is revealed to the viewer with basically equal temperament in weight. There are so many "burning" questions with no immediately satisfactory answers. Here are some themes, circumstances, and details worth pondering:
A major way in which most of the film's major and minor characters are depicted and differentiated is through economic disparity. Ben is described by Jong-Su as a "Gatsby" character, being that he is young and wealthy, but the source of his wealth is unclear. Jong-su's family identity as coming from the low-income working class is apparent throughout. His vehicle, his clothes, his unemployment despite his university degree, his mannerisms, and the way his ambitions fall outside the boundaries of expectations and desirability of the traditional competitive workforce reflects the frustration that is so commonly assigned to the millennial generation. The socio-political discrepancy within the film is undertoned by news reports about national unemployment. Jong-su's property is within visible distance of the North Korean border, and its propoganda broadcasts can be heard from literally just outside his door.
Jong-su's situation and social status is largely, although not entirely reflective of his parents' background. Jung-su's father had opportunities in life to be considerably more wealthy and successful, and refused some of these opportunities on account of his pride. After appearing for a group interview for a job at an unspecified warehouse job, Jong-su faces an interview process reminiscent of a military commander's bombardment of new recruits, or of a rancher herding cattle. Jong-su simply walks out in the middle of the interview.
"You know health has never been an issue, thanks to my superior DNA."
- Ben, in a phone conversation with his mother
Jong-su seems to not only have inherited his father's pride and relative disregard for financial success, but also his stoicism and tendency to supress his rage.
"He has rage bottled up inside of him. It goes off like a bomb. Once it goes off, everything gets destroyed."
- Jong-su, speaking of his father
Hae-mi and pantomime
While Ben is directly compared to Jay Gatsby, Hae-mi as a character also seems to somewhat reflect Daisy. She is a somewhat air-headed, free-spirited, caution-to-the-wind type character, who seems to be constantly trying to find her place, to find meaning, and to fit in. For as much time as she spends with Ben and his friends, in reality she has practically no money or close friends to call her own. She is ostracized by her family on account of her debt. She is curious and innocent, and in many ways she is pretending. This falls into line with her hobby of pantomiming which is revealed in one of the film's early scenes. Her tendency to consciously fool herself and her relative inability to face reality lends itself to her nature as an unpredictable and unstable character.
(Hae-mi pantomiming, peeling and eating a tangerine)
Jong-su: "That's good. You're talented."
has nothing to do with talent." (points to her head) "This is how it
works. Don't think there is a tangerine here. Just forget that there
*isn't* one. That's the key."
Little Hunger and Great Hunger
"Do you know the Bushmen who live in the Kalahari Desert? They have two types of "starving people." Starving people. "Hunger" in English. "Little Hunger" and "Great Hunger." Little Hunger is a person who is literally hungry. Great Hunger is a person who is hungry for the meaning of life. Someone wishing to know why we live, what meaning there is in life, that sort of thing. They are the truly hungry people. So they are called "Great Hunger."
- Hae-mi, shortly before her trip to Africa
All three of the central characters seem to be in constant search of satisfaction, meaning, or both. Although Jong-su's attention and motivations shift throughout the film, he is constantly searching as well, as indicated by his writer's block. F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner are both referenced within the film, although I admit to having a limited knowledge about the latter, and therefore can't connect his writings to the story metaphorically. Jong-su does mention that he feels as though Faulkner is writing about himself, for whatever that's worth. The uncertainty of the film and the film's identity of a character-driven story rather than a plot-driven story are reinforced by how much more clear the characterization is than the plot.
Ben: "I like to cook because I can make what I want, any way I want. What's better is that I get to eat it. Just as humans make offerings to the gods, I make my own offering and consume it."
"An offering, it's a metaphor."
"What's a metaphor?"
"A metaphor is...well, ask Jong-su."
~Analysis pt. 2: Main Story (WARNING: Spoilers)
Seriously, if you have any genuine interest in seeing the film and you haven't, skip ahead. I mean it.
Just about every piece of information given within the main story in Beoning is unreliable information at best, if not absolute misinformation. No fact is entirely determinable, and all evidence that might suggest a particular truth is undermined either by itself or by the possibility of contradiction, which is of course no greater or lesser than the possibility of affirmation. This serves to draw away from the interpretation of the story as a problem to be solved, but rather as a character study into Jong-su's spiraling obsession and paranoia. We are not led to draw conclusions exactly as he does, but we are given the perspective needed to understand his motives as well as his bias based on what he experiences. There are so many questions. Let's start with Boil, the cat.
Jong-su's suggestion that Hae-mi didn't own a cat at all might have been playfully made at the time, but it's still worth considering. There is some circumstantial evidence of Hae-mi having owned a cat based on the droppings in the litterbox and due to the fact that Jong-su has to refill the cat's food and water each time he visits Hae-mi's apartment while she is in Africa. Still, we never see the cat in her apartment, and Hae-mi's neighbor insists that she has never owned a cat because there are no pets allowed in the building. When she opens the door for Jong-su there is no evidence of a cat ever having been there.
When Jong-su discovers Ben's new cat it isn't completely determinable that it's the cat that was in Hae-mi's apartment (again, it isn't completely determinable that there ever was one in her apartment). Jong-su manages to get the cat to approach him by calling it by the name "Boil." This could reasonably reinforce the idea that it was Hei-mi's cat, but it could also be coincidental. The cat never approached or trusted Jong-su when he visited Hae-mi's apartment, and certainly wouldn't respond to being called by name at that time.
Hae-mi's credibility is further questioned within the story of falling into the well. Hae-mi's mother and sister claim that the story never happened, and that Hae-mi can be convincing when telling made-up stories. One elderly neighbor of the village says he believes there was not a well where Hae-mi's house stood, and Jong-su's mother says that there was a well.
We can't be sure of Hae-mi's motives and intentions. Although the phone call Jong-su receives from Hae-mi does seem to suggest foul play, such as kidnapping, it's also plausible that Hae-mi sought to run away or perhaps even injure herself. When she first returns from Africa she admitted to having an existential crisis and thoughts of death and/or disappearance. These can be reasonably interpreted as suicidal tendencies.
"Then the sun started to set. The sun was setting beyond the endless sand-covered horizon. At first it was orange. Then it turned blood red. Then purple, then navy. It got darker and darker as the sunset disappeared, and my eyes suddenly welled up with tears. 'I must be at the end of the world.' That's what I thought. 'I want to vanish just like that sunset.' Dying is too scary, but... I wished I could disappear as if I had never existed."
But, once again, this is inconclusive simply because Hae-mi is such an emotional character, prone to moodswings and to melodrama. The facts that Jong-su finds Hae-mi's pink suitcase in her apartment unpacked and that Hae-mi cleaned her apartment more thoroughly than usual could each point in either direction as to whether or not her disappearance was voluntary. It could simply be that she did not want to be found.
There's one more piece of evidence to address concerning Ben's possible involvement in Hae-mi's disappearance before we get into Ben's character: the watch. Jong-su finds a pink wristwatch in the jewelry drawer of Ben's bathroom very similar in appearance to the one he gifted Hae-mi, the only object which had not been there the first time he'd investigated the drawer, before Hae-mi's disappearance. This evidence is once again undermined as a possible coincidence when Jong-su is talking to Hae-mi's former coworker about her whereabouts, when he notices the young woman wearing a very similar tacky pink wristwatch.
It's hard to determine whether or not Ben had any ulterior motives, or the extent of his capacity for nefarious and violent behavior. We know for sure that he has a somewhat sinister side, based on his hobby and the way he describes it. The fact that Ben insists that he burned down a greenhouse close to where Jong-su lives, but that Jong-su never finds evidence of it, could point to Ben trying to toy with Jong-su. It certainly seems that's the way that Jong-su interpreted it. But this still doesn't clearly show us Ben's capacity or intention to murder.
But let's consider Ben's carefree and unsuspicious attitude. If he had something to hide, why did he consistently act with such trust? Did he really not notice all the times that Jong-su was following him? The one time he does catch Jong-su outside his apartment, he's very non-confrontational. If he was behind Hae-mi's disappearance, why would he be careless enough to take her watch and her cat? How would he have known that Jong-su had never seen her cat in her apartment with his own eyes? What about in the final scene, when it's revealed that Jong-su sent Ben a text about "joining" Hae-mi? Wouldn't this have certainly been seen as a huge red flag by Ben if he was guilty? He consistently acts with no sense of caution or survival instinct that one would expect from a serial killer. And what about Ben's embrace of Jong-su as he's dying? Doesn't that seem oddly genuine?
There is also a natural sense of ambiguity after the fact. Not from misdirection or ambiguous information so much as from a lack of information. The movie ends with Ben's death scene. We don't know what happened to Hae-mi. We sure as hell don't know about Ben's involvement, if any. And we don't know whether Jong-su got away with it. He vomited about 20 feet away from where he burned the car - that is potentially traceable and damning evidence, depending on how quickly the murder scene was investigated by a forensics team. But no, we are given none of this. Jong-su stands righteous in his conviction, the deed is done, and the credits roll.
~Reception and Conclusion
I won't try to make the claim that Beoning is unprecedented or revolutionary, but it's certainly unconventional and non-formulaic. It is a true mystery film, very much unlike an episodic crime drama like a CSI or a Law and Order, or an Arthur Conan Doyle story (Not that there's anything wrong with that).
There is no guiding light towards an inevitable and tangible truth. There is no detective, no judge, no narrator to guide us through a linear discovery of concrete evidence. The court hearing for the assault charges against Jong-su's father serves a kind of antithetical context mirrored against the lack of a systematic process of justice within the main story. A sense of determinable justice is not only actively avoided within the main story, but the entire concept of justice is both implicitly and openly questioned.
(on Ben's hobby of burning greenhouses) Jong-su: "And you judge whether or not they're useless?"
Ben: "Eh? I don't judge anything. I just accept it." (as he lights his joint) "I accept that they're waiting to be burnt down. It's like rain. Rain falls. The river overflows, causing a flood that sweeps people away.
"You think the rain judges anything? There is no right or wrong there. Just the morals of nature."
Beoning is one of those uncommon films which is much easier to appreciate in retrospect, in reflecting upon all the information given and allowing it to develop into one's own opinion, rather than appreciating the experience of the film itself. Because there's simply no way around it--the pace of the film can be objectively described as slow (and can be subjectively described as agonizing). Even with all the film's deep symbolism and philosophy and poignancy, coupled with moments of ingenious cinematography and seductive performances, I definitely found myself consistently wishing the film would just get on with it.
I can see where the film's slow development along with its unnaturally ambiguous and open-ended nature and intentionally unsatisfying and inconclusive story could lead viewers to be unimpressed and even disgusted. It's understandable for anyone to be bored with the film. But then again, the word boring has also been used to describe John Steinbeck, and Johannes Brahms, and baseball, and political talk shows...you get the picture.
What the viewer can garner from a film like this largely depends on what they're willing to invest. If you sit with your brain off waiting to be entertained and amused (which is totally your prerogative) then you probably won't enjoy it. If you allow yourself to think critically, then you still might not enjoy the film as you watch it, but you'll be much better equipped to appreciate it in hindsight. I'm kind of torn between the sides of enjoyment and appreciation. While on the one hand I'm sure that I will never be able sit through this movie from beginning to end ever again, I'm equally sure that it's a movie I'll never forget. And there's no doubt that it deserves a great deal of respect for what it's accomplished not through its direct effect, but for its potential to catalyze the reasoning skills and imagination of the viewer.
"Maybe you missed it because it was too close...Sometimes you can't see things that are too close to you."