Burning ★★★★★

Sydney Film Festival 2018 - #12

My curiosity was instantly piqued when I noticed that Burning was an adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami. I have not read the original text but I had a burst of enthusiasm for Murakami when I was younger. I read many of his novels and while only impressions have remained, they are highly favourable. So, combined with some good press from Cannes, it was a no brainer that I was going to see this as soon as possible. The following are some thoughts and reflections. Maybe dont read it if you havent seen the film yet.

Apparently, in South Korea it is very common to have "model assistants" in front of just about every store. Their whole job is to dance to K-pop in as little clothing as possible in an effort to entice people to go inside and buy stuff, whether it be a cafe, restaurant or grocery store. It is as though entire commercial centres in Seoul have been turned into quasi red-light districts where instead of getting a blow job inside, you get groceries instead. Questionable? Maybe. Effective? Unlikely. Although, it would be interesting to know how many men volunteer to do the groceries in South Korea.

The beautiful and effervescent Hae-mi is one such model assistant. One day, while dancing outside a store she espies the taciturn and bashful Jong-su. Recognising him as someone from the same small country village where she grew up, she calls out to him. Irrepressible and audacious, Hae-mi wastes no time in cheekily convincing the painfully reserved Jong-su to take her out. Bubbly, loquacious and quixotic, her temperament could not be more at odds to his, but paradoxically their natures were perfectly apposite in a text book case of opposites attract.

Despite Jong-su's clunky hesitancy, a cute little romance sorta kinda ensues. But before it has a chance to bloom in earnest, Hae-mi heads off on a previously planned trip to Africa. When she returns, she comes back with extra baggage in the form of suave, self-assured Ben. Charming, sophisticated, with the assuredness of the upper class, his Porsche and fancy apartment are in stark counterpoint to Jong-su's battered truck and Hae-mi's one bedroom shoebox of an apartment. Outwardly without employment, he has the leisurely air of independent wealth.

Having established this set-up, the film then begins a delicate dance between each of the characters as their dynamic slowly unfolds. Jong-su feels immediately threatened and is beset by confusion. Ben exudes a veneer of affected benigness and exhibits an air of almost indifferent seduction towards Hae-mi. And Hae-mi reveals layers of tragic beauty that lends her a sadness and vulnerability that made my heart ache for her.

Despite appearances of being a melodramatic love triangle , the trajectory of its narrative took surprising directions I did not anticipate. A clue to this unexpected turn starts somewhere closer to home for Jong-su. At the beginning of the film he has to return to his father's farm. During a dispute about a perceived injustice, his father has assaulted a government official. Righteous and intransigent, his father stubbornly refuses to apologise, bringing upon himself a harsher punishment.

As a result, Jong-su struggles with conflicting emotions and perhaps ambivalence towards his father. His father's inability to capitulate and let the government official assert his power, right or wrong, ties Jong-su to the farm and keeps him distant from Hae-mi. Naturally, he needs to wrestle with the nature of his obligations to his father. Yet, there are other questions that are also difficult to answer. Is his father justified in his actions? Or is goverment something that must be blindly accepted? At the end of the day, what principles are worth fighting for at all costs, even at the expense of your son? These questions become an important theme of this film.

Because of this film, I have started reading Murakami's breakout novel, The Wild Chase again. It has triggered some vague recollections. Jong-su seems representative of a typical Murakami male protagonist. He is intelligent but he struggles to communicate and be intimate, while at the same time it seems like everybody surrounding him does so with ease, as though they know some secret he doesn't.

Women in particular are a mystery to a Murakami protagonist and whats more, the female characters tend to know them better than they know themselves. Jong-su certainly seems to be equal parts baffled and bedazzled by Hae-mi from the moment she detonates like a buzz bomb on that Seoul street, showering him with exhilirating attention. He serms to regard her with uncertain awe as though she were a model of social perspicacity, a pixie of florid romantic notions and a practitioner of sexual divination. Yet, her feelings are opaque to Jong-Su and true emotional intimacy remains elusive.

Especially when Ben comes into the picture. He is everything that Jong-Su is not with his fancy clothes and smooth charisma. Jong-Su obviously feels outclassed and takes a step back. He waits for a signal from Hae-mi as to where he stands, while at the same time assuming Hae-mi will just slavishly redirect her affections towards Ben like some kind of automated gold digger. Insecurity can infect your thoughts like that and make you think shitty things about people.

But to be fair, to Jong-su, it is not unreasonable to suspect that Ben might be dividing her affections. Ben's position and manner suggests that he possesses the decoder ring to all of the enigmas of life that leave Jong-su disconnected from his community. Yet, it's not just how to talk confidentally and connect to people, he also appears to be clued in to the secrets of power, the shadowy forces that operate just beyond Jong-su's field of vision, nevertheless controlling every aspect of his material life like some grand conspiracy.

Overall, this film depicts Jong-su's burgeoning awareness of the reality of this power. Hae-mi's and his own position within the structure erected by it is gradually revealed to him. For Jong-su, Ben becomes a totem of the destructiveness and parasitic nature of capatilism. Jong-su struggles with youth unemployment, along with many of his generation, while battling to keep his father's alive. Hae-mi in the mean time dances half-naked on the pavement to make a buck and lives in a postage stamp sized apartment.

Yet, Ben lives in comparative luxury and ease, which one may presume is a result of the accumulation of wealth at the expense of others. Hae-mi becomes a symbol of this exploitation as Ben sucks her into his orbit, uses her and then spits her out. With Jong-su's dawning horror of Hae-mi's fate, his awakening is complete. He lives in a world of capitalist cannibalism, where those few people with money have all the knowledge for making more money and all the power to exploit everyone else to enable them to do it.

Once the mud has been wiped from his eyes and the truth is clear, what is Jong-su meant to do then? Suddenly, he finds himself faced with the same decision as his father, who likewise squared off against his own enemy in the guise of a government official. Does Jong-su accept his powerlessness, put his head down and shuffle on in defeat? Or does he rise up in revolt and commit an act of righteous violence for vengeance and in protest? This is the ultimate question asked by this film.

It might have all the earmarks of a cookie cutter Marxist fable for our times, with the spark of revolution spurned by capitalist exploitation and government corruption. But it could not be more relevant than now when a multi-billionaire mega capalitalist controls the white house with far reaching consequences for the entire world.

Many may be swayed by his improbable charisma (I dont get it, but whatever). When half the population feel threatened and afraid, his paternalistic promises may fool some people into thinking that he will take care of things and make them feel secure, just like their dad did when they were kids. But what will those people do when the illusion drops and they realise that they have been bent over and fucked up the arse all along? When that happens they will have to answer the same questions as Jong-su.

I am sorry if you have read this far. I have probably bored you shitless with a mind numbing synopsis and a few moments of stating the obvious. I am not educated or nothing so I keep using my writing to think about stuff, often by using films as a launch pad. But my mind is plodding and I am always way behind the eight-ball. At the end of the day, ignore all my bull twang above, Burning is an awesome movie.

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