Updated: Feb 6
Original artwork by Julia Jarzyna.
‘From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all. But whether or not one can live with one's passions, whether or not one can accept their law, which is to burn the heart they simultaneously exalt - that is the whole question’ (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942). Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning (2018) is amongst the most acclaimed films of the 2010s. Despite being an adaption of Haruki Murakami’s Barn Burning, Lee’s idiosyncratic style remains apparent. The film deftly balances a thriller narrative structure with a surreal atmosphere and poignant social commentary. Subsequently, much discussion of the film has focused on the film’s critical depiction of contemporary South Korean class division. However, little attention has been given to the film’s thematic relation to absurdism. In his landmark essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus rejected certain traits of existentialism to instead develop his own philosophy of absurdism. He defined absurdism as the philosophical conflict between the human need for meaning or value and the inability to objectively prove it. In this article, I intend to show both the sophistication of Burning’s philosophical themes and the enduring relevance of absurdism as a philosophy.
The film follows a working-class, aspiring writer named Lee Jong-Su. Early in the film, he reconnects by chance with his childhood friend Hae-mi. A romance initiates between them until she takes a trip to Africa. Hae-mi returns to Seoul with Ben, an extremely wealthy playboy. Jealously quickly arises for Jong-Su, who claims that ‘there are too many Gatsbys in Korea’. One night, Ben confesses to Jong-su that he has a bi-monthly penchant for burning down barns. That same night, Hae-mi drunkenly strips naked and dances in front of the two men. His jealously reaching boiling point, Jong-su lashes out at Hae-mi. A day later, she mysteriously vanishes. In his torment, Jong-Su conducts an obsessional search for both Hae-mi and any traces of the burnt barns. Eventually, Jong-su finds evidence of Hae-mi’s presence at Ben’s apartment. He concludes that barn burning was a metaphor for Ben’s murdering of young women and that Hae-mi was one of these victims. Enraged, Jong-Su kills Ben and sets his body on fire.
The three characters of the film seek solace from an existential lack of purpose. This existentialism derives from the absurd nature of their lives. First, Jong-su’s life is absurd because he is socially pressured to have a career and successful romantic relationships. Yet, his economic disadvantages and traumatic childhood inhibit his ability to do either. Second, Hae-Mi’s life is absurd due to the continual societal pressure for her to uphold an image of success. This is in contradiction to her being born into a life of economic hardship. Third, Ben’s life is absurd as he exists in a society that propagates the message that success is a consequence of hard work. Nevertheless, he has never required any personal exertion and is constantly accommodated for. Hence, the absurd nature of each character’s lives are due to the economic conditions of contemporary South Korean society.
In Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, he writes that absurdism is characterised by three responses. The first, is suicide. The second, is ‘the leap of faith’. This involves committing to a value that is beyond the rational world and cannot be objectively proven. Third, is the acceptance and embrace of the absurd nature of life. This is the realisation that if life is devoid of ultimate meaning, then so too is an individual entirely free of responsibility. Camus contended that the first two responses are inadequate and that acceptance of the absurd should be encouraged. Interestingly, all three characters of the film respectively adhere to these responses. First, Hae-Mi tries to find solace in African spiritualism. This is the reason for her trip there. Her trip acts as a manifestation of ‘the leap of faith’. This is because she attempts to project an irrational meaning or value. However, upon returning from this trip, she is left even more in doubt over the absurd nature of her life. By instead turning to Ben, she performs a metaphorical and literal suicide. Her suicide is metaphorical as she abandons her spiritual values in favour of Ben’s materialism. Her suicide is literal as the film’s characters acknowledge that young and economically insecure women often disappear when in the company of wealthy men. Second, Jong-Su tries to find solace in his literary passion and affection for Hae-Mi. He describes his enjoyment of literature, particularly William Faulkner, as giving expression to the absurdity of his life. Later, he centres his life’s purpose around his affection being reciprocated by Hae-Mi. Again, these are manifestations of ‘the leap of faith’, as they are irrational meanings and values. Eventually, he forgets the value of literature and his affection for Hae-Mi becomes a detrimental obsession. Upon realising the inability and lack of responsibility to these values, Jong-Su kills Ben. In other words, he abandons ‘the leap of faith’ to instead act truly free and embrace the absurd condition. Third, Ben’s solace is derived from destruction. This is because he recognises that solace cannot be derived from other people. This contradicts Ben’s life, wherein he is rewarded for engaging in society. Ben recognises this absurdity. Therefore, his acts of destruction embrace the absurdity of his condition. Ben’s acceptance of the absurd condition attracts both Hae-mi and Jong-su. This is because both are performing 'the leap of faith' and are incapable of embracing the absurd condition. This attraction eventually manifests into jealousy from Jong-su. This jealously causes Jong-su to kill Ben and to embrace the absurd condition. As aforementioned, Camus wrote that the embrace of absurdism is the realisation of individual freedom. The film’s narrative structure similarly suggests this, as the protagonist Jong-Su rejects both suicide and the leap of faith. Instead, the film culminates with Jong-Su embracing the absurd through the act of killing.
A central question to the film’s narrative is whether Hae-mi’s disappearance is because Ben killed her. This is suggested in two instances. First, Hae-mi’s watch appears in Ben’s apartment. Second, Ben’s newly adopted cat responds to the name ‘Boil’. Boil had previously been established to be the name of Hae-mi’s cat. If we take this as evidence enough, the narrative can be interpreted to see Ben as a killer. This would mean that his hobby of burning greenhouses is a metaphor for his pattern of killing young women. However, if we consider these two instances to be coincidences, the narrative can be interpreted as Jong-su projecting his jealousy onto Ben. Although he commits illegal acts by burning down greenhouses, Ben is not a killer in this interpretation. The only one who commits murder is Jong-su in the finale. The intelligence in the film’s narrative is that either interpretation reaches the same conclusion about Ben’s character. Whether he is a killer or not, he still embraces the absurd condition. This embrace still attracts Jong-su and Hae-mi. This is the reason for Burning’s narrative complexity. If the purpose of the narrative was only to determine whether Ben is a killer, the film would only require an analysis of surface level-plot points. Even if is a conclusion is reached about whether Ben is a killer, it doesn’t articulate his motivation. Instead, understanding the narrative requires consideration of both the film’s societal context and its dense philosophical themes. For this reason, Burning deserves to be remembered as one of the most narratively rich films of the 2010s.
Films Discussed Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, 2018)
Camus, A. (1942). The Myth of Sisyphus. Murakami, H. ‘Barn Burning’ in The Elephant Vanishes (1993).