This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
"Hae-mi just disappeared into thin air."
This movie defeats me. My writing style is not good for it. I *can* write about it, and I love writing about it because I love the movie, but what I'm writing about here is not *what* I love about it. What I love about it is its languid pace, it's tranquil mood, it's meditative tone, its sumptuous cinematography—but I don't have the flowery language to talk about that stuff. So let's talk about Lacan!
The central narrative question at the heart of Burning is this: what happens to Hae-mi? She asks Jong-su to feed her cat while she's away, she comes back with Ben, the apparently sociopathic boy who never cries, but then she just vanishes, disappearing into thin air. Did Ben kill her? Did she just move on with her life?
These are interesting questions to ask, but the movie doesn't answer them, so at the end of the day our speculations are little more than fan-fiction. But we can provide a different sort of answer to these questions by looking at the plot of the film less literally and more metaphorically. To rephrase the question: what happens to Hae-mi *psychoanalytically speaking*? What space does Hae-mi occupy in Jong-su's psychological makeup?
Before Hae-mi returns from Africa with Jong-su, we almost know her better as the picture on her wall that Jong-su masturbates to when he feeds her cat. She is very explicitly a figure of desire for him. He is clearly jealous of Ben's relationship with her, and he later confesses to being in love with her despite not really knowing much about her. He's attracted to her so strongly that his entire world revolves around her even though she's absent for most of the movie.
In psychoanalysis, the mental device that shares these characteristics is objet petit a, the object-cause of desire. It motivates our actions—our life revolves around it the same way that Jong-su's life revolves around Hae-mi—but it is structurally unattainable. We think obtaining the people and things we want will bring us eternal, infinite happiness, but of course it never does; we just move on to the next thing. We can obtain individual objects that we desire, but we cannot obtain the object-cause of our desire.
We can explain this phenomenon in the movie's own language: "little hunger" and "big hunger." Little hunger is satiable, little sustenance is achievable, but the big hunger is something you feed your whole life, it is a deeper purpose that does not go away. In the same way that Hae-mi is absent throughout most of the film, the food that would sate the big hunger, objet petit a, does not exist.
This nonexistence is psychoanalytically healthy, but it's also what creates the potential for obsessional neurosis like Jong-su's: our fixation on the unattainable object-cause of desire breaks the regular cycle of desire's motion and drives us mad. Jong-su is unable to accept Hae-mi's disappearance and move on with his life, unable to move on to the next object of desire. The healthy motion of objet petit a is arrested, and this stoppage leads to Jong-su's violent outburst.
And yes, the movie leaves us breadcrumbs that point toward Hae-mi's murder at Ben's hands, but that's its job, right? It scatters these clues around, but they're all fundamentally ambiguous until we read into them. The question to be answered is not whether Ben actually did it or whether Hae-mi is happily living somewhere else; you can decide that for yourself, you can write your own fanfic.
Hae-mi is absent throughout most of the film because that is her proper place as the object-cause of despite. The real question to be answered is not what happened to her, but rather why Jong-su kills Ben without concrete proof of his crime. He kills Ben because of Hae-mi, but not because he loved her. He killed him because of his unhealthy obsession with her. He killed him because of objet petit a.
Also, because I watched this movie virtually with my friend Ian, who watches movies in the same idiotically analytical way I do (and who isn't on Letterboxd—yet), I want to share his reading of the film as well, because it's significantly different from mine but is also great in its own way.
He read Burning as a sort of tragedy of failed masculinity, with the central conflict between Jong-su and Ben playing out contradictions in traditional conceptions of masculinity, from the classic rational vs emotional dichotomy found in Dionysus vs Apollo to the productive vs destructive dichotomy embodied in Jong-su's writing vs Ben's greenhouse-burning.
I like this reading because it has a much more convincing place for both Ben and Jong-su's father than mine does. They're the foreground and background embodiments of the dispassionate violence of toxic masculinity. Ultimately Jong-su kills Ben because his emotional & productive masculinity is insufficient to give him the satisfaction he needs, so he resorts to the same emotionless destruction that surrounds him.
PS. Still can't stop watching this movie as a South Korean spin on Vertigo.