How do we know what we know? More importantly, how do we know anything when the supposed evidence consists of absences? Does a cat exist that we never see or hear, and all we do is fill its bowl with food and clean the litter box regularly? Is a charmer’s glib confession that in order to feel alive he burns greenhouses every couple of months enough proof to convict him of these crimes – and of worse ones? And when a loved one vanishes, is her absence proof that something horrible has happened? Does Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) make himself believe that something is there, or does he make himself forget that what he is looking for actually doesn’t exist – as with the tangerine in the pantomime his friend Hae-mi shows him?
To watch Burning (by the Korean director Lee Chang-dong, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami) is to watch two eerily similar but fundamentally different films. One of these, the film as watched through the lens of the conventional thriller, is a revenge drama in which a young man falls in love, sees the object of his affection taken from him by a rich, handsome sociopath – first by stealing her from him and then by ominously vague but rather more final means – and makes him pay for his crimes. The other version of Burning, which demands quite a bit more of its audience, is the one that keeps undermining the seemingly obvious clues at what has actually happened.
Usually when we watch a film that uses unreliable narration, there are obvious clues to make sure that the audience doesn’t miss this. Their stories are often framed by being told, explicitly and on-screen, by narrators we cannot fully trust for one reason or another, so our ears prick up: why does the person telling the story want us to believe a certain thing, and what is really going on? Since The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense, audiences are attuned to signs that they’re being manipulated, all in the service of a clever twist. Burning isn’t nearly as blatant as this, and its ambiguity doesn’t resolve itself into a simple twist that changes everything we’ve seen. Instead, it asks its audience to pay attention to what makes us believe a certain thing, rather than just going for the easiest, most movie-like explanation. When Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), the woman Jong-su has fallen for, returns from Africa with her new, rich, smart friend Ben (Steven Yeun), we see him through Jong-su’s eyes. He distrusts Ben, who clearly seems to be playing with Hae-mi and her affections, but he also envies him: he envies Ben’s money, his confidence and the ease with which he moves through life, while Jong-su is a slow plodder who wishes to be a writer but barely gets by taking care of his family farm. Jong-su wants, even needs Ben to be the bad guy.
If we look through the thriller lens again, there are numerous pieces of evidence pointing towards a grim conclusion: when Hae-mi disappears, it is because Ben did something to her. Her cat turns up at Ben’s. Her cheap watch, a gift from Jong-su, is found in what looks like a trophy collection in Ben’s bathroom. Shortly after her disappearance, the latter takes up with a new girl who seems a carbon copy of Hae-mi, equally cute but out of her depth with suave Ben and his sophisticated, rich friends. We have seen Ben and his ilk in many films, where they usually turn out to be monsters wearing a human skin – and those films usually presented evidence that was circumstantial at best as if it was a smoking gun. If we’re more honest with ourselves than Jong-su most likely is, for every clue that his fears are true there are at least two explanations: when Jong-su last saw Hae-mi, he called her a whore, so may that be why she doesn’t respond to his calls? The stray cat that Ben has taken home responds to the name that Hae-mi gave her cat – a cat that neither Jong-su nor the audience has ever seen, at that – but cat owners know how fickle cats are and that it is at least as likely that they will respond to the name they’ve been given as give you a good view of their behind. There are clues that with the right mindset can easily be read as proof, but none of them really prove anything.
When we believe that Hae-mi was killed by Ben – the latest greenhouse burnt by a sociopath prone to metaphor – we accept what Jong-su wishes to believe. It makes the story into one where he is flawed, where he has made mistakes, but he is the good guy and Ben is the villain who has taken from him the thing he cares about the most. As grim as it is, it is still more comforting than the version of the story where Hae-mi left behind her old life in search of a new one, without a Jong-su who believes that being shy, awkward, needy and judgmental entitles him to being loved – or, even more frightening, the version where Hae-mi may be alive or dead, where Ben may be a killer or simply a condescending, manipulative man who lies for fun – and Jong-su will never know which is true. All the better to forget that there is no proof and see what he wants to believe, because we all want to believe that Schroedinger’s cat is alive – and if the box is empty, to pay back Schroedinger for what he so obviously did.