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Burning Movie Explained: Director’s Views (Korean Film)

Burning, or Beoning, is a 2018 Korean Crime Drama directed by Lee Chang-dong. The film is centered on Jong-su, who wants to become an author. He runs into a girl who used to be a neighbour when they were kids. Just when you think this is going to be a love story, enters Ben, a wealthy guy who confesses his strange hobby. The Burning movie’s cast has Ah-In Yoo, Jong-seo Jun, and Steven Yeun in the leading roles. If you like Bong Joon-ho’s films like Parasite and Snowpiercer, you’ll like this one. It’s a long film and has both literal and metaphorical components. Here’s the detailed plot explanation and ending of the movie Burning explained, spoilers ahead.

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Contents

Here are links to the key aspects of the movie:

Burning Ending Explained By The Director

Based on what is stated by the director, Lee Chang-dong, there are two ways to explain the movie Burning. One is literally, where Ben is a sociopath serial killer, he has murdered Hae-mi, and Jong-su takes his revenge by killing Ben. The other angle is that Ben is not a killer, Hae-mi has just moved on and created a new life for herself elsewhere and what we see towards the end of the Burning movie is the story of the novel that Jong-su is writing.

Burning Movie Plot Explained: Ben is a serial killer

burning ben is a serial killer

Burning Movie: Clues that point towards Ben being a serial killer

  • Ben claims that he has never shed a tear in his life, that he’s never felt sadness. 
  • He refers to his job as “playing”. We don’t know what Ben does for a living, but he does have an odd way to describe it.
  • Ben’s bathroom has a box filled with women’s accessories. In the serial killer’s world, this is a ‘trophy’, one for each of his kills.
  • Ben expresses that he felt jealousy for the first time when Hae-mi tells him that Jong-su is the only one she trusts. But the way he says this to Jong-su, it feels apologetic in some way.
  • Hae-mi’s cat, Boiler, is in Ben’s house, and he lies that he brought a stray cat home.
  • Hae-mi is missing, and her room is neat and tidy, which is unlike her, but more like Ben.
  • Ben mentions to Jong-su about his “hobby” of burning greenhouses. This is elaborated upon below.
  • We are shown one scene from the perspective of Ben, where he ritualistically prepares another girl by using makeup. This seems to be part of Ben’s process to eventually kill his victim.
  • Ben always seems to be in the company of women like Hae-mi, who exhibit no restraint and are free souls unashamed to express their thoughts and feelings. That seems to be his victim type.

burning hae mi well

Burning: What is the relevance of the well Hae-mi talks about?

The well is an outstanding element of misdirection. Hae-mi is constructed as an unreliable character in the movie Burning. Much of what she says leaves both the audience and Jong-su questioning her authenticity. Sometimes you even wonder if she’s just taken on a false name to mess around with Jong-su. The well is one such event she brings up from the past, which is mysterious. She claims to have fallen into that well when she was 7-years-old and that Jong-su was the one who spotted her. Jong-su has no memory of this. He asks Hae-mi’s family, and they say that they never had a well. The neighbour also says the same thing. Jong-su’s mother, however, remembers a well, but she herself is a wreak and highly unreliable. 

So what is the relevance of the well? It makes us think that Hae-mi is a compulsive liar and that she may have been lying about her cat too. In the sense, it might have been a stray that visited her room and not her pet. This notion about her is used to provide the element of surprise when Jong-su calls the cat by the name Boiler, and it responds. 

burning movie greenhouse metaphor

What does Ben mean by Burning Greenhouses? (Burning Movie Greenhouse Metaphor)

Ben says he enjoys locating greenhouses and burning them to the ground. He likes erasing things from existence. As Ben mentions, he sees it not as a crime but as an act of nature. Here’s the thing, though. Ben is not literally burning greenhouses. He considers women who are nurturing, warm and looking for the true meaning of life to be metaphorical greenhouses. Ben murders women with these specific traits and disposes of the body, perhaps near the lake.

How did Ben kill Hae-mi in Burning?

It looks like Ben kills someone once in two months. He tells Jong-su that he’s scouting for his next target and that it is “very close” to Jong-su. Jong-su misunderstands this as an actual greenhouse, but as he confirms, no greenhouses in his vicinity have been torched. But in that meanwhile, Ben has murdered Hae-mi and gotten rid of her body. There’s a scene when Jong-su receives a call from Hae-mi, and all he can hear is running and panting. This was probably just before her death.

Why does Jong-su not go to the police? Why does Jong-su kill Ben?

Jong-su knows that there is no pressing evidence against Ben. If he mentioned the cat, there would be no way to confirm it was Hae-mi’s as even the building admin didn’t know about the cat. It appears that Hae-mi was raising the cat secretly as pets were not allowed in the building. Even the women’s accessories are not substantial evidence. Hence, Jong-su takes matters into his own hands like his father, who is in jail because of his anger issues. Jong-su kills and burns Ben to seek revenge. 

Why did Ben show up to the rendezvous if he had killed Hae-mi?

To me, it appears that Ben was fond of Jong-su, and it feels as if he allowed himself to be caught by him. At the end, when Jong-su is stabbing Ben, he doesn’t resist; instead, he hugs him. This could be Ben’s decision that his time has come, and he’d rather die at the hands of someone of his choice. For someone as meticulous as Ben, it seems odd that he left his kill trophies in the bathroom out in the open. I think he wanted Jong-su to find them.

burning ending explained

Burning Movie Plot Explained: The End was Jong-su’s novel

This angle explores the metaphorical nature of the movie Burning. As the director mentions, Jong-su belongs to one end of the spectrum, the struggling working-class. Ben, on the other hand, is a successful character much in the lines of the Great Gatsby. His life and house are one to yearn for, but when you go after materialistic goals, you are seldom happy once you achieve them. Hae-mi is somewhere in between. She makes ends meet by taking up odd jobs, lives on credit, but is the only character who is looking for the meaning of life. And when she disappears, we feel a void.

This is not shown in the film, but the director insinuates that the movie Burning’s ending is probably Jong-su’s novel. 

Burning: Ben in Jong-su’s novel

In the beginning, Ben jokingly suggests Jong-su should write about him. Despite his wealth, Ben seems to be a genuine guy. He’s respectful and doesn’t mistreat Jong-su because he’s poor. He goes out of his way to call Jong-su over to his parties and introduces him to his friends. We are not shown anything negative about Ben. He seems to be a perfect gentleman. But that can’t be true, can it? There has to be a catch!

As Jong-su begins writing his book, it ends up being about his own life, and the story is centered around a mysterious wealthy guy. While Jong-su can’t identify any evident bad traits about Ben in real life, in his book, he bestows upon him a dark side, a serial killer. Somehow, as viewers, even we feel completeness to the calm, rich, well-mannered gentleman, Ben, when we’re shown that he could be a serial killer. It’s like we were waiting for it. Perhaps there is a horrible consequence to Ben’s lifestyle, but definitely not as bad as being a murderer. However, in Jong-su’s novel, he’s decided that Ben is a killer.

hae mi dance scene

Great Hunger Dance – Hunger to find out the meaning of life

The Great Hunger dance scene is pivotal to the movie Burning not only because it cinematically captures the duality of life, both light and dark, it is also the last time we see Hae-mi. She expresses herself in her raw form, happy and free, but gets called a wh*re by the one person she trusts most.

Burning Movie: What happened to Hae-mi?

Now, remember, in the beginning, Hae-mi is curious what it would be like to disappear as if she never existed. So the idea of vanishing and starting a new life has been brewing in her head for a while. But then she meets Jong-su and hopes to have found love. Unfortunately, he seems very neutral and displays no fight inside him for her. 

hae mi and jong-su

When Ben offers Hae-mi a drop home, she expects Jong-su to step up and say that he would drop her. Instead, Jong-su is quick to ask her to go with Ben and pulls her bags out of his truck. Though he has feelings for her, he never expresses them to her. The final blow comes when Jong-su calls her a wh*re. While Jong-su assumes that Hae-mi is in a serious relationship with Ben, that is not the case. Hae-mi decides that she’s going to disappear from her current life and move elsewhere and start over. The reason she does up her room like that is to make it feel like she never lived there, like she never existed. She leaves everything behind and moves away.

Burning Movie: What was real, and what was part of Jung-su’s novel?

It’s safe to say that everything up until that night they spend at Jung-su’s place is real and is also part of his book. Everything from there is only part of the book’s fictional story. While in reality, Hae-mi just left, Jung-su tries to give her disappearance a reason in his book – Ben. While Ben is a cultured, wealthy guy, the novel presents a dark side by making him a serial killer. Everything from finding Hae-mi’s watch in Ben’s bathroom, to confirming the cat to be Boiler, to killing and burning Ben is part of the story in the novel. 

The final burning question is – where is Jung-su now headed, physically and in life?

What did you think about the movie Burning and its ending? Honestly speaking, there is a third angle – North Korean Propaganda. I know very little about it, so I didn’t venture into those details. I’d be grateful to anyone who can provide their theories in the comments section below.