We Need To Talk About the Ending of Burning

We Need To Talk About the Ending of Burning - because the ending is really something. And I'm still wondering if I understood it.
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Burning is a movie that may just burn it all down. But it might not be what you think it is. It’s a really disturbingly dense little South Korean film with a lot to say. And yeah, if you liked Parasite, you might very well enjoy Burning as well. But regardless, we need to talk about the ending of Burning, because that ending is really very confusing, and it might not be exactly what you think it is.

Now, I’m dying to get to the end and to talk about this thing with you. But first, I have to say that if you haven’t already watched the film, you can check it out right here. Regardless, don’t proceed without watching it… because we are totally popping the hood on this thing.

Burning Movie Walkthrough

As the movie opens, Le Jong-su (played by Yoo Ah-in), a hopeful novelist who lives out in the country, is performing pick up jobs in the city of Paju. As he’s working, he happens to run into an old school friend, Shin Hae-mi (played by Jong-seo Jun), who is working as a store-girl. I think that is what you call them. In America, we usually only have these people at tech conferences. But Shin is enticing men into a tech store with dancing and raffle give-aways. Regardless, Jong-su does not remember Shin Hae-mi at all, but she tells him that she got plastic surgery…which is why he doesn’t recognize her.

Now. Stop for a second. There is a moment here, where Shin Hae-mi tells Jong-su that the only thing that he ever said to her back in school was that she was ugly. Think about that for a second. But also, Jong-su doesn’t seem to remember making this rude comment. Why am I pausing here? Well, we’ll get back to this later, but, I don’t actually think that he did know her. We get no real indication that they were acquainted. Did they even attend the same school? Hrmmm. Regardless. Like I said, we’ll get to this later. Anyway, Jong-su “wins” a pink watch, and he gives it to Shin Hae-mi.

They hang out, go for drinks, then dinner. Eventually, she asks him to watch her cat while she is out on a trip to Africa she has been planning for a while. And then Shin Hae-mi invites Jong-su over to her house to meet the cat and to see what he should do while she is gone. They end up having sex…where she has a convenient condom in a stow away tray underneath the bed. I am not specifically saying she probably sleeps around with a lot of men…but I am saying that she probably sleeps around. I’m not judging. But it probably will have a bearing on the outcome of the film, one way or another.

Where were we? Oh, yes. Hae-mi heads off to Africa. Jong-su takes care of the cat, although, we never see the cat. But we know the cat must be there because there are deposits left in the litter tray and the food dishes are empty. Then, one day, Hae-mi calls Jong-su to tell him that she’s been stuck at the Nairobi Airport because of nearby bombings. (Reminds me of a time I was trapped in the London Underground because of a bunch of small bombs that were detonated around the city. Literally my first time in London. Scared out of my mind. All of like, what, 18? 19? I have no idea how old I was. But I was freaking out. Turns out that the IRA, from October 1st – 8th 1993, had planted like 8 devices in and around the city? Anyway, I digress.) Regardless, when Jong-su goes to the airport to pick her up, she is there with a fellow named Ben, whom she connected with during the chaos of the bombings.

Now. This is a problem, right? Jong-su is full-on enamored. Completely. It’s a whirlwind thing for him. Like, boom. Revolutionary that this beautiful girl would fall for him so quickly and completely. He obviously can’t wait for her to return. So, when the trio go out to dinner, he watches as Hae-mi recalls a particular sunset during her travels. She is so moved by the memory that she literally says she wants to disappear. “Disappear.” Hrmmm. What does that mean? Disappear? Now, Ben is obviously extremely well off. And Jong-su is obviously not. We see his farm house where he lives by himself after his father has been locked up. It’s run down, it’s a total mess. He is definitely not well off at all. At least in comparison with the city which he finds himself pining for. Now, it’s very obvious that Ben is well off. But he doesn’t discuss what he does for a living. He’s also bold. Confident. He seems to be Jong-su’s alter ego. Ben is his superman to his Clark Kent.

At one point, the trio crash at Jong-su’s place where all three do drugs and Hae-mi dances for them. Eventually, after Hae-mi falls asleep on the couch, Jong-su admits that he despises his abusive father. Instead of offering some form of condolence, Ben tells Jong-su of his habit of burning abandoned greenhouses once every two months. Ben even notes that his farming area is filled with abandoned greenhouses. And Ben notes he’s past due for a “burning” and he might as well do his next one in this area. Before Hae-mi and Ben leave, Jong-su tells Hae-mi that he loves her – but that he was angry with her that she danced in front of them both. As the duo leave, Jong-su makes sure that Ben is aware he’ll be watching the greenhouses in his community. After a while of staking out the area’s greenhouses, he gets a call from Hae-mi, which is muffled, and cuts off. And after Hae-mi doesn’t answer any of his return calls, Jong-su becomes very concerned. So he heads back to Hae-mi’s apartment, and it is really, oddly, very clean. The cat is also gone.

Taking his PI game to a new level, Jong-su begins stalking Ben and watching his comings and goings. And eventually, Jong-su notices Ben’s Porsche sitting outside a restaurant, so he heads in to tell him what the what was. As Jong-su walks up to Ben, a woman appears and apologizes for being late. When the three leave, Jong-su asks if he knows where Hae-mi might be. Ben mentions that she couldn’t be on another trip because she is too poor and couldn’t afford it. Jong-su then admits that Ben was the only person she trusted, and that he was jealous of that trust for the first time in his life.

Ben sees Jong-su outside his elite apartment in Gangnam, the extraordinarily wealthy portion of Seoul, and invites him up. Ben has a new cat that Ben says is a stray, but Jong-su notices responds the name “Boil” – which was Hae-mi’s cat’s name. Jong-su also discovers a pink watch in Ben’s bathroom, along with other women’s jewelry. Jong-su later asks Ben to meet him out in the country, that he has finally found Hae-mi. But when Ben notices that Hae-mi isn’t there, Jon-su stabs Ben repeatedly. After Jong-su makes sure Ben is dead, he douses Ben’s car and body on fire. He even strips off his blood stained clothes and throws them in among the fire as well. And as the movie ends we watch as a naked Jong-su heads to his truck and drives off.

What is Burning All About?

As the movie ended I had a million thoughts pumping through my brain. Mainly they were all about Hae-mi and whether or not Ben is the murderer that he assumes he is. I mean, we have the cat, and we have the watch. But when Jong-su said he’d found Hae-mi, Ben comes to see her? It’s a convoluted problem. But that is when I realized I was looking at the movie all wrong.

Then I started thinking about the title of the film, “Burning.” There is a lot of burning going on in this film. We have Ben’s habit of burning greenhouses. We have the ending, and Jong-su’s burning of Ben’s car and body. But we also have Jong-su’s burning. Wait, what? Yeah. Think about it, Jong-su is pining, burning, lusting, after Hae-mi. And also, I didn’t mention it during my walk through, but Jong-su habitually began masturbating while in Hae-mi’s apartment…while staring out the window at the city of Seoul. He’s burning for a life in the city, a life of wealth. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I realize that the film is actually more about Jong-su’s burning than it is about Ben’s. Why? Well… good question.

Think about Jong-su’s life. He lives alone at his family’s house outside of the city. The house is a dilapidated run down affair. The farm is failing, and it is a ramshackle pile of dishes, chaos, and trash. Worse, Jong-su sells the farm’s last calf. When Ben, Jong-su, and Hae-mi sit in the front yard together, Ben comments that it smells of cow dung, and Jong-su and Hae-mi laugh. Jong-su is about as far from the upper crust side of Gangnam as he can possibly be. Now, to put Gangnam in perspective…I’ve traveled the world over, and I have literally never seen wealth like the wealth in Gangnam. I am rabidly scouring all my old photos to find this one particular photo of a random bakery I walked into. I saw these personalized cakes that were hundreds of dollars. I was certain my mental conversion from wons to dollars was busted. But my translator confirmed my math. I was shocked by the prices in Gangnam. When we had dinner there, and I was hoping the dining chairs had seat-belts on them! Jong-su had absolutely no chance of leaping the chasm from his run down farmhouse to the vaunted esteem of Ben’s apartment exclusiveness.

I would submit to you that Burning isn’t as much about Hae-mi as you initially thought it was about. Instead, I would argue that Hae-mi and Jong-su are two sides of the same coin. Jong-su has abandoned her family, and moves from job to job in order to try and hold things together. When Hae-mi disappears she could just be fleeing debt. In Japan, they have a term, Jouhatsu (蒸発 – literally means evaporation), for individuals that just walk away from their lives, leaving absolutely no trace as to their whereabouts. And this phenomenon is replicated all over the world, but it is more likely to happen in Japan and Asian countries due to a number of specific cultural factors. Could it be that Hae-mi spent the last of her cash to go to Africa, like her parents suggested she had? Could she have “disappeared” because of debt like that of the Japanese Jouhatsu? And what about Jong-su? His mother abandoned the family when Jong-su was a child, and she only returned in order to request cash from her unemployed son. And what about his father? He faces trial for assaulting a local government official, leaving Jong-su with the neglected family house and a failing cattle farm. We know that Jong-su’s father is abusive, and still we see that the only real writing that the hopeful writer does during the course of the movie is a legal petition on behalf of his father. Jong-su is also slipping into the obscurity of oblivion.

Now, compare Jong-su’s plight to that of Ben. Even his name, “Ben” is strange. It’s an oddly Americanized moniker. We aren’t even clear what Ben does. And when Jong-su asks him, Ben doesn’t even talk down to him, he dismisses him and the question entirely. “Even if I explained it to you, you wouldn’t understand it. I play.” Ben is above the standard South Korean rules. Jong-su catches the suspicion of the local police just sitting in his truck. But Ben? He speeds in his Porsche, he smokes marijuana (which is highly illegal in South Korea) and no one suspects him of anything. The normal societal gravitational pull of laws, morés, expectations, they all don’t matter for Ben. While Jong-su is being ripped apart by the entropy of his life, Ben just seems to float above it all.

So I ask you this, after thinking about the differences between Ben and Jong-su and Hae-mi, do you still think its a murder mystery? Nope, I don’t either. Instead, I think it’s a murder mystery of society’s socioeconomic failings for an entire segment of this population. I think Hae-mi evaporated – just walked away from life. She even said that that was what she was going to do. And I believe that Jong-su, offended by Ben’s off-handed dismissal of his entire life and way of living is what drove Jong-su over the edge. And similar to Parasite’s discussion about the elite of society, how they live, and how the poor of Korea struggle, I believe that Burning is a call to arms for the world’s poor. It’s an anthem. The movie Burning is ultimately a guillotine for the rich.

You guys are smart enough to handle a little bit of hard-pill-truth. Think about it for a moment – right now, the three richest Americans are worth $89 billion (Bill Gates of Microsoft), $81.5 billion (Jeff Bezos of Amazon), and $78 billion (Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway). What is that? Something close to $248.5 billion? Absent context, that number is hard to fathom. But if you take the combined value of wealth from the bottom 50%? $245 billion. If you are a free market Republican (Don’t worry, I was you… I can represent you just fine) you might be getting a little nervous about the math and the direction the logic is flowing on this blog post right now. Calm down. I’m not advocating socialism. I’m just pointing out which direction the barometer is pointing. And if you know ANYTHING about history, you will realize what this all might soon mean (spoiler alert: checkout the Battle of Blair Mountain). It’s just a fact that global inequality creates enormous insecurity within which riots, battles, and wars will inevitably bloom.

Regardless, I think Burning was another fascinating conversation about issues around poverty and wildly successful wealth…with a murder mystery thrown in to boot.

Final Thoughts on Burning

It seems we’ve been covering a ton of cool international films of late. If you are really yenning for more complicated films in this space, you might want to try Under the Shadow, Big Bad Wolves, Borgman, In Bruges, etc., etc. Burning was good in that I had no idea what direction it was going. And even after it was over I had to really consider what I thought might have happened at the end. Did he just kill a murderer? Or did he just kill an elitist jerk? Either way, was it justified? And what do we do in the face of just appalling inequality? I finished it over a week ago, and I’m still thinking about it.

Edited by: CY