While there may be a deeper meaning behind Burning, the script has a serious problem with the treatment of women in the film.
Burning focuses on aspiring fiction writer Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo). His life isn’t really interesting to say the least. His father’s troubles with the law have led him to move back to the Paju home in order to take care of the farm. Needing financial income, he picks up jobs here and there. Along the way, he reunites with Shin Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo). Even though he doesn’t remember her, she remembers him and before you know it, they’re making out in her apartment. Oh yeah, she’s leaving to go to Africa…
Upon returning from Kenya, Haemi is joined by another Korean, Ben (Steven Yeun), who she met on the trip. Not much is known about him other than the fact that he’s never cried. His vehicle of choice suggests that he’s wealthy. So much mystery surrounds his character. That he has a love of burning greenhouses may be one thing but we never see this take place on screen. It gets to a point in which the greenhouses may be a metaphor for something completely different. Jongsu starts checking in on the greenhouses near him but none have been burned down. He starts to get the idea that something is off.
It gets worse when Haemi goes missing for a month. Her cat is gone but her suitcase remains. A trip is seemingly out of the queston. But wait, there’s more! Her room is so clean and her phone is disconnected. Nobody in her family knows Haemi’s whereabouts. Almost as soon as the film begins to get as interesting as it can with the romantic triangle, Haemi vanishes without a trace.
I want to talk about the treatment of Shin Haemi–portrayed in the film by Jeon Jong-seo. I don’t doubt that she’s a fine actress even if this is her first film. The film really provides a male gaze when it comes to the character. We see this through the way that it treats her as if she’s a sexual fantasy for Jongsu. It’s not only this but her character literally drives the arcs of both Jongsu and Ben. Was nothing else available to drive the tension? It’s like they make Haemi some sort of sexual fantasy for the two of them! When Haemi goes MIA for a month, Jongsu goes into full stalker mode by tailing Ben’s car.
All of the film’s nude scenes come at Haemi’s expense. There’s only one point in the film in which a man is nude but this doesn’t come as a result of sexual fantasy. No, this comes as the result of a spoiler. That the men aren’t subjected to the same sexual fantasy is very problematic for a film that treats its main female character as such. Here’s how much of a sexual fantasy that Haemi is for Jongsu: he masturbates in her apartment while looking out the window. Even as he’s looking for Haemi, there’s a scene that literally describes how tough it is on women if they don’t dress for the men’s approval so to speak.
The film is based on a short story, Barn Burning, by Haruki Murakami. That the title shares one with a William Faulkner story just happens to be a fascinating coincidence. For what it’s worth, both stories deal with rage in their own differing ways.
A slow burn of a film, Burning isn’t only painfully long but it is seriously problematic in treating women like a sexual fantasy.
DIRECTOR: Lee Chang-dong
SCREENWRITERS: Oh Jung-mi, Lee Chang-dong
CAST: Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, Jeon Jong-seo