Angela went digging through her catalog of Haruki Murakami adaptations and came up with the 2018 Korean film directed by Chang-dong Lee known in English as Burning, based off the Murakami short story “Barn Burning”.  Strangely enough, no barns (and for that matter, no greenhouses) are actually burnt in the film.  There is, eventually, a fire.

So what’s this film all about?

Another industrial early morning/A factory belches filth into the sky

Our main character, Lee Jong-su is a young man who is working a delivery job in Seoul while simultaneously taking care of his father’s farm property in Paju, at the North Korean border.  Jong-su’s mother has been absent since he was a child, his father is currently working his way through the legal system after committing a violent assault, leaving Jong-su largely on his own.  One day on the job he is recognized by a former schoolmate from his neighborhood, Shin Hae-mi.  She flirts with him despite accusing him of treating her poorly in their childhood, and they reconnect over a meal.

She never told me she was a mime

At the meal, Hae-mi demonstrates that she has been taking lessons in mime, and philosophically tells Jong-su that the trick to miming an act like one is eating an orange is not so much to imagine an orange as to forget that there is no orange altogether.  Hae-mi also announces that she is leaving soon for a trip to Africa, and she asks Jong-su if he would feed her cat for her while she is gone, since she has nobody else to do it.  Jong-su agrees to petsit for her, and visits her apartment (really a small room) the next day to get access.  The cat is in hiding, so naturally they spontaneously have sex.

Jong-su never does manage to see the cat during his caretaking, but as the food is eaten and the litterbox keeps getting filled, he assumes the cat must be hiding somewhere in the cluttered mess of Hae-mi’s room.

Let me play Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy for you

But when Hae-mi returns home, she comes with a new friend, Ben, a slightly-older playboy type with no apparent source of his independent wealth whom she met in Nairobi.  Ben and Hae-mi’s relationship quickly begins to intensify, despite Ben’s evident careless attitude towards her and Jong-su’s deepening affection following their intimate encounter.  One day Jong-su and Hae-mi dine at Ben’s apartment, and Jong-su, jealous of Ben, snoops around the bathroom and finds a strange drawer filled with various women’s trinkets.

On a clear night you can see the DMZ

One day Ben and Hae-mi visit Jong-su at his father’s farm, where Hae-mi tells a story of a young Jong-su having rescued her out of a well, an incident she pre-emptively accuses him of not remembering.  After Hae-mi falls asleep, Ben admits to Jong-su that he has an interesting if illegal habit – every few months he decides to burn down an empty greenhouse.  Since he hasn’t done so since before his trip to Africa he feels it’s about time for another, and he admits that he has come out to the countryside largely to scout for his next greenhouse, informing Jong-su that he has selected his next one, that it is nearby, and that he will burn it down soon.

Intrigued, Jong-su begins traversing the farmlands on a daily basis, finding all of the greenhouses and trying to figure out which one Ben will burn down.


Eventually, Jong-su becomes obsessed with the idea, and begins to even dream of himself as a child burning down greenhouses.

One day while doing his rounds to check the greenhouses, Jong-su gets a strange call from Hae-mi, which cuts off abruptly after a few seconds of loud noises.  From this point, Jong-su is unable to get in touch with Hae-mi again.  Ben seems to have no idea where she is either, and the entry code to her apartment has been changed.  After a few days Jong-su manages to get Hae-mi’s landlady to let him into her room to care for the cat, despite the landlady’s insistence that pets were not allowed and Hae-mi didn’t have one.  Once inside, Jong-su finds the room meticulously cleaned, with no sign of a cat.

Boil the Cat that was your date’s/That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates

Jong-su becomes more and more suspicious of Ben having knowledge of or involvement in Hae-mi’s disappearance, and begins to stalk him, learning among other things that Ben has a new girlfriend.  One day, Ben catches Jong-su lurking outside his apartment and invites him in, as he is having a dinner party later anyway.  Unlike Jong-su’s previous visit, Ben now has a skittish cat.  Ben claims to have found it as a stray, but it appears to come to the name of Hae-mi’s cat.  Jong-su, now even more suspicious, snoops through the bathroom again and now finds Hae-mi’s watch among the women’s trinkets in the drawer.

This Korean BBQ says, “No shirt, no shoes, no problem!”

Jong-su is now convinced that Ben has killed Hae-mi, and that his talk about burning greenhouses was merely a metaphor for the serial killing of vulnerable young women.  The “greenhouse” that Ben was scouting out on his visit to Jong-su’s farm would appear to have been Hae-mi herself.  So Jong-su calls Ben claiming to be with Hae-mi, and asking him to come to a remote location.  Ben arrives, and asks to see Hae-mi, but Jong-su ambushes him with a knife, stabbing him to death, then stuffing the body and his own bloodied clothes into Ben’s Porsche before dousing the lot with gasoline and setting it alight.  The end.

So this was just one of my favorite films that I’ve seen in the last few years.  It’s paced slowly but precisely, and it’s beautifully shot.  Evidently the sunset scene at the farm took weeks to shoot because the light was only right a few minutes a day.

In addition to being a consummate piece of visual art, Burning is a movie that does an amazing job of never telling you quite what is happening.  At first, I thought Hae-mi (and Ben) were running some sort of scam on Jong-su.  Why, I couldn’t tell you, since he’s not really rolling in the dough – perhaps vengeance for his poor treatment of her years earlier?  In fact, for a time I wondered if she was even a childhood neighbor of his at all, though a later scene with Jong-su visiting her family would seem to eliminate that theory.  Still, she’s clearly not fully trustworthy.  The story of her falling into the well appears to be fictional by all attempts by Jong-su to track down the well itself or anybody who would remember the incident.  And the invisible cat that takes the food and leaves a mess in the litterbox seems as much like a ruse to convince Jong-su that Hae-mi has traveled to Africa when perhaps she and the oddly-rich Ben may truly be in on a scam from the start.

Still, the idea that Hae-mi and Ben are scamming an unlikely mark in Jong-su seems to evaporate with her disappearance and Ben’s complete withdrawal from Jong-su’s scene.  The Ben-is-a-serial-killer theory is quite attractive from an explanatory point of view – though it might not account for his wealth, it does speak to the drawer of women’s trinkets and the sudden appearance of a cat that just might have been Hae-mi’s.  One day Jong-su follows Ben to a distant reservoir, where he stands on the earthen dam looking in.  Is this where he dumps his victim’s bodies?  Could be.  But we are shown nothing – literally zero – to confirm Jong-su’s suspicions, and the ending doesn’t really jive.  If Ben had truly murdered Hae-mi, and he has noticed Jong-su snooping around him, would he really allow himself to be drawn out into a remote area to meet a guy who might be on to him claiming to be with someone he knows he has killed?  It’s an obvious trap, and it shouldn’t work on someone guilty.

In the end, it certainly seems that Hae-mi is super unreliable, and it’s possible that she just skipped town for no good reason.  It would seem we will never know.  And the most incisive question may turn out to be: Did Jong-su imagine Ben was a murderer, or did he just forget that Ben wasn’t?