Burning: Ambiguity, subjectivity, and the value of intellectual film criticism

I watched Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 film Burning for the first time a few days ago, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. The themes, characters and, most importantly, the feeling of the film have latched into my mind the way the best pieces of cinema do.

Burning, Lee Chang-dong

I don’t really want to get into the content of the film, as I believe it’s something you need to experience for yourself. What I want to do, instead, is use Burning as a conduit to explore the idea of ambiguity in film. Key to the film’s success, and rightfully recognized as a strength of Lee’s approach by reviews, is its commitment to ambiguity. Through ambiguity in character and plot developments, Burning creates a world of unease that festers in every frame, as we are brought along the journey of Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), and his interactions with childhood acquaintance-turned-romantic interest Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-so), and the mysterious Ben (Steven Yeun).

It’s easy to compare Burning to Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite on a thematic level: both films, in one way or another, depict the disparity in class within South Korea. I admit that upon watching it for the first time, I also compared the two, but the films differ in their methodology: Parasite is a dark comedy that ratchets up tension until the final moments of the film, while Burning is, at its core, a character study of its three central figures.

Burning, like many films in the history of the medium such as Eraserhead and Rashomon, employs the use of ambiguity for a purpose. The film provides no easy answers, and perhaps that’s the point. Burning is a film more interested in forcing us to question the world, rather than providing all the answers. The gaps in the story as we and Jong-su see it are not there as “plot holes”; rather, they are made to force us to confront the themes not only of the film, but of filmmaking itself. Burning is a rejection of anti-intellectual tendencies in modern film criticism.

Chekov’s Gun: A framework for plot devices

Traditional narratives in film follow a three-act structure, where every moment is set-up and paid off. For the most part, characters learn every detail prevalent to the plot, and when they don’t it is often for an ironic purpose, such as in Psycho, where the $10,000, crucial to the plot is forgotten about following the death of Marion Crane. As mentioned previously, a film like Parasite sets up every element of its plot, and by the end of the runtime they are expertly paid off. This approach to storytelling is often thrilling and rewarding; the audience gets to see the twists and turns coalesce into a satisfying conclusion. It’s deeply effective, and that’s why it’s used so much. It’s important to understand that it’s not the only approach to narrative, however.

Unique to the medium of film is editing, which cuts together two images to create a third meaning. Editing is used to incredible effect all the time, but something important to note is that the act of cutting from one shot to the next implies that there is time missing. Combined with cinematography, which deliberately focuses on whatever is in frame, and you have the foundation of subjective perspective. Burning uses this to incredible effect; Jong-su is in almost every scene, and most frames. When the film withholds pieces of information that would provide even a semblance of an answer, we find ourselves situated with Jong-su, struggling to uncover the truth of what happened. It’s frustrating for him, and it’s frustrating for us. He’s given conflicting pieces of information, and told things that don’t line up with what he thinks he knows. Both we and Jong-su try to force a truth out of nothing. Cinema is a medium made of ambiguity, seeking truth in the spaces between subjectivity and reality.

So, why does this matter? Well, because of something I alluded to earlier: anti-intellectual film criticism. The benefit of the internet is that it has made film criticism far more accessible than ever before in the history of the medium. No longer does one have to flip through their newspaper to read a review, for now they can go on YouTube to watch video essays, or go onto a blog made by a twenty-something who just really likes movies in order to gather their thoughts.

Burning, Lee Chang-dong

The problem with this democratization of film criticism and analysis, however, is that there are those who seek to commodify it without making the effort to engage with the material. It’s so easy to get lost in film communities online that only engage in complaining about plot holes, or how a character’s actions don’t make sense because it’s “not realistic”. It’s easy to lose yourself in four-hour long videos explaining how every single aspect of a film is illogical. I get it, I really do. I’m not going to pretend like I’ve never done this, but if we make the effort to engage with a form of art, we need to take it seriously. Not every film needs to be a masterpiece, and not every film needs to have an airtight plot with characters that always act realistically, but we must accept a film for what it is, and participate in the exchange of ideas.

Film criticism isn’t one-size-fits-all, and not every film is the same. As film continues to evolve, voices old and new will be discovered, and new techniques will be discovered in the films made by artists of all backgrounds. Some use a traditional narrative structure, and others choose to employ other techniques. Even two films made by directors living in the same country, dealing with many of the same themes, approach their stories in very different ways. Parasite approaches its story and themes with a structure in which everything is explicitly paid off, while Burning chooses to place the audience in Jong-su’s perspective for an implicit story about class, masculinity, and the financial burden placed upon women. Both are valid; it’s about how they utilize these structures that matter.

Near the beginning of the film, Hae-mi reveals that she has been learning pantomime, and she explains while peeling an imaginary tangerine: “Don’t think there’s a tangerine there, just forget that there isn’t one. That’s the key”.

That one line is the path towards understanding Burning, and it’s the key to film analysis. It’s not about plot holes or applying real-world logic to constructed worlds. It’s not always about finding the objective truth to a film’s characters, or its themes. Don’t think there’s a truth there, just forget that there isn’t one. When you do that, maybe the implicit will become explicit.

Just a boy, standing in front of an internet, asking for them to accept one more blog on pop culture.

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