Yesterday was a bad day to watching Burning. Lee Chang-dong’s drama that’s currently earning rave reviews out of film festivals and is already ordained as South Korea’s submission for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar centers on the harm enacted on a young woman, yet focuses on how that harm makes the men in her life feel. Yesterday was a bad day. And it was a day where I had zero patience for this long-winded story that considers abuse against women predominantly through how it affects the men who cause it.
Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story, Burning follows Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young man scraping by with odd jobs in a Korea with high unemployment rates hit his demographic. But things are looking up when he runs into Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), a cheerful young woman he knew in childhood, but ignored because she was younger and “ugly.” But look! She tells him. She’s had plastic surgery! Want to go to dinner? They will. They’ll have sex and begin a clunky romance. Then she meets Ben (Steven Yeun), who is wealthy, rakishly charming, and a little unsettling as he confesses he never cries and burns down greenhouses for fun. Jong-su becomes jealous. He tells Ben he loves Haemi. He tells Haemi she’s a whore. Then she goes missing. And we are bound to Jong-su as he breaks into her apartment to masturbate and investigate and become suspicious of Ben.
This movie is two and a half hours long and most of it is spent gazing at Jong-su’s blank expression as he listens placidly while Heimi reminds him of shitty things he’s said, as he says more shitty things, as he follows Ben and sneaks around greenhouses to see which one Ben burnt down. It’s long. Slow. And I had no patience for it. Because goddamn am I over hearing how sad men are when they harm women or see women that give them boners be harmed. Watching Burning the day of the Kavanaugh/Ford testimony made it impossible not to see the parallels in how men’s stories are given greater focus and less scrutiny even when those men are abusive. In Burning, we are invited to ogle Heimi as she bares her breasts, even when it’s as an expression of vulnerability in a dance meant to reflect her “Great Hunger” to understand the purpose of life. But we follow the man who called her a slut for that. And the man who may have burned her down like some abandoned greenhouse.
There’s one scene where Jong-su speaks to another young woman while looking for Heimi. She tells him there’s no way for women to win. We are criticized if we dress provocatively but mocked if we don’t. Wearing make-up is judged, as is shunning it. “No country for women,” she sighs as she watches three colleagues in short shorts bounce about and wiggle to promote something. This is the job they’re offered. The role. And even as the film recognizes it, Burning refuses to explore this. Instead using it as sad set dressing for its MIA manic pixie dream girl who only matters because she made a guy have feels. I don’t need two and half hours and mercilessly long close-ups for this story. It’s one I—-and I reckon most women—-know all too well. We are told it nearly every damn day.
I just witnessed a man scream at a woman on an uptown 1. He called her a “gorgeous woman” while shouting at her and pointing his finger in a threatening manner. Then he said, “I’m a man! This is MY world.”— Kristy Puchko @ Fantastic Fest (@KristyPuchko) September 27, 2018
This fucking day.
Burning made its Texas Premiere at Fantastic Fest and will play the New York Film Festival.
Header Image Source: Fantastic Fest