You travel enough, you begin to notice certain things about different parts of the world. Like how Russians don’t really consider beer to be an alcoholic drink, or how Australians are kind of disappointed to learn that poison ivy won’t actually kill you, or how Canadians love Americans like a brother but hate them like a favored son. These weirdnesses come through in cinema as well, as little slivers of national identity find their way into narrative interpretation. And when it comes to South Korea, we can’t look at their cinema for too long without noticing that movies about serial killers are kind of a South Korean thing. And not just movies about ritual and habitual slaying, but movies in which serial murder becomes a narrative lens for some other aspect of South Korean life. And while there are a number of outstanding examples of this, one of the most recent is also one of the very best, a tense story of love, resentment and obliviousness called Burning.
Lee Jong-su is a lowly twentysomthing who barely gets by performing various odd jobs in the South Korean city of Paju. He says he is an aspiring novelist, but we never see him write anything, and he seems so dimwitted that we can’t ever imagine him putting too many words to paper. One day, he runs into a childhood neighbor and schoolmate, the pretty and energetic free spirit Shin Hae-mi. Jong-su and Hae-mi strike up a romantic relationship shortly before Hae-mi takes a long-planned trip to Africa. But when Jong-su goes to pick up Hae-mi at the airport, he sees that she is with Ben, another Korean traveler she befriended while traveling. Ben is everything that Jong-su is not: handsome, charming, urbane and wealthy. But there is something else about Ben that Jong-su doesn’t trust. He can’t quite put his finger on it, and things aren’t helped by Ben’s confession that he has a secret hobby of burning down abandoned barns. But deep down, Jong-su knows Ben isn’t into burning or barns. And when Hae-mi suddenly vanishes, it begins to dawn on Jong-su what Ben might really be doing in his spare time.
Slow-moving, moody and methodical, Burning does a pretty good job of up-ending both the typical conventions of a serial killer story as well as our own expectations from such a tale. Here, there is no tension in discovering who the killer is: it is clearly Ben. There is no tension in seeing if Ben’s plan can be prevented: both Jong-su and Hae-mi are too dull or self-absorbed to see what is coming. Rather, the tension comes in wondering if Jong-su will be able to put enough details together to realize that Hae-mi’s disappearance is not what it seems, that she is definitely not coming back, and that Ben was responsible for it.
The movie lets us in on its secret early and so openly. We watch Ben subtly toy with Hae-mi, maneuvering her into an emotional space where she can be made to be even more social disconnected than before, and thus easily killed and dispatched. We watch him subtly taunt Jong-su with enough detail that would enable anyone else to prevent a pointless murder, but not nearly enough to set off any alarm bells in Jong-su’s thick head. And we watch Ben himself drift between smug self-satisfaction as he plies his sinister craft and a deep boredom as he knows that those around him could stop him if they weren’t so out to lunch or so disinterested in looking past their own vapid self-interest.
And that is the most chilling thing about Burning. For a story about serial killing, se never see any bodies. We never see any actual violence. We never see any overtly menacing behavior or gruesome reminders of a predator at work. Instead, the whole thing is almost completely innocuous; if one did not know Korean and did not watch this with subtitles, they would probably have no idea why the movie ends as it does. And that’s the point: serial killers don’t operate like creepy monsters. They operate like they are one of the best of us, working with guile and ambush until their victims practically invite themselves into a monster’s lair. For the second half of the movie, we ask ourselves why nobody will step in and prevent this otherwise completely preventable tragedy. And as we do, there is Ben smiling at us, as if to say, if anybody would, they would have done it a long time ago. And they’re not about to start now.
But there is an additional element at work here, too. Set on the fringes of modern South Korea—as well as in its toniest neighborhoods, we get the sense of the deep economic and cultural divides that create multiple societies living next to each other. The dream of mobility across the boundaries falls short of the reality, and it provides a stalker like Ben with the kind of tall grass he needs to hide the fact that he feeds in broad daylight. Hae-mi’s daydreams of a life far more free than she can afford, Jong-su’s resentment over a guy who can provide Hae-mi with the petty luxuries that he cannot are all the distraction Ben needs.
We know that this movie is either going to end in complete nihilism or Jong-su will finally figure out what’s going on around him. And when we see him peering slack-jawed through a completely burnable barn standing very much unburnt, we see the lights finally start to flicker on. And when the movie’s moment of truth comes in its final moments, we are given all the hope we can expect in a world such as this: Somebody out there will care if we are gone. And yet, as the credits roll we are reminded of a crueler reality: most people won’t even notice.