On May 16, 2018, at the Cannes film festival, acclaimed South Korean director, Lee Chang-dong, came back from an eight year break to release his psychological thriller, Burning, to the world. Praised for its slow burn tension and criticism of capitalism, Burning has become one of the most significant Korean films of its time. While there is a lot to dissect within the film, regarding the mind bending plot and themes of class division, one thing that is not talked about enough is the film’s depiction of toxic masculinity, as seen through the two main male characters. (Warning: spoilers ahead).
Lee presents the audience with two completely different characters: Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) and Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong-su is a poor young man who works a variety of jobs to take care of his family farm while his father is in prison. Ben, on the other hand, is a young but rich socialite who never states what exactly got him his fortune. The two are brought together by Hae-mi, a free spirited young woman who knew Jong-su from her childhood and met Ben on a trip to Africa. These two characters and the conflict that they face throughout the film are allegories for the dangerously strict class structure enabled by capitalism, but they also act as much more than that. In addition to representing the struggles between the upper and lower classes, Jong-su and Ben represent the two different sides of toxic masculinity that are prominent in our culture today.
Jong-su is the protagonist of the film. The audience spends most of our time with him, yet he never winds up being fully likable. The film begins with Jong-su having a chance encounter with a girl he knew from his childhood, Hae-mi. The two get dinner together, where Hae-mi reveals she is going on a trip to Africa, and asks Jong-su if he would feed her cat, Boils, while she is away. He begrudgingly agrees after the two have sex. It’s clear from the start that Jong-su is only doing this because he is attracted to Hae-mi. He sees her as a sexual object; nothing more and nothing less. When he goes over to her apartment every day to feed her cat, he begins masturbating to pictures of her. Lee’s realistic and raw style shows this act as everything that is: grimy, disgusting, and appalling. It’s the act of a man doing what should be a harmless favor for a woman, only for him to turn it on himself and his sexual desires. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of Jong-su’s questionable behavior. As the film progresses and Ben is eventually introduced, Jong-su becomes full of jealousy and paranoia. He thinks that Ben is attracted to Hae-mi and will take her away from him; though, she was never really his in the first place.
Let’s take a few steps back and look at Ben, because to understand one of these characters we need to understand the other. Ben is the complete opposite of what Jong-su is; he’s rich, he’s charming, and he’s well-spoken. The audience can’t help but fall under Ben’s spell. There’s something alluring about him, and he has clearly become a puppet master at getting people to feel certain ways towards him, but Ben doesn’t really have any feelings himself. He even admits to Jong-su and Hae-mi that he’s “never shed a single tear in his life.” Hae-mi seems fascinated by this, while Jong-su uses it as another reason to start conspiring against Ben. This is understandable; if there was a chance that the girl you liked was into a sociopath, you’d probably be concerned too, but Ben’s admissions of his feelings, or lack thereof, only made him more intriguing. By this point in the film, the audience doesn’t know whether or not to trust Ben, and that makes him all the more interesting. However, we do know that Jong-su is a scumbag. His repeated behavior clearly shows that he’s only interested in Hae-mi sexually, but still decides to be overbearing and full of jealousy anyway. Which, subconsciously, makes us want to root for Ben a little more, if only to see Jong-su lose.
The film continues in its slow burn fashion, with the tension between Jong-su and Ben becoming more and more palpable. Jong-su seems to be searching for any reason to vilify Ben, and one night, he’s given one. After the three get high together and Hae-mi falls asleep, Ben tells Jong-su about one of his hobbies: burning down greenhouses. He claims that he burns down an abandoned greenhouse every couple of months, and says that the next greenhouse he burns down will be close to Jong-su’s farm. This confession only further confirms what has been brewing in the back of Jong-su’s, and the audience’s, mind: Ben is not to be trusted. After that night, Jong-su becomes obsessed with finding the greenhouse that Ben has burned down. At the same time, Hae-mi mysteriously goes missing. All the signs point to Ben having something to do with her disappearance; from the fact that Jong-su can’t find the greenhouse, to Ben’s cat responding to the name Boils, everything seems to be pointing right towards Ben, but somehow, he’s still calm. He’s collected and he’s manipulating everyone and everything around him. While Jong-su is freaking out over the cat possibly being Hae-mi’s, Ben still stays level and acts like everything is alright. Yeun portrays this so well that the audience wants to believe that Ben did nothing wrong. And Jong-su’s ferocious, obsessive, and gross nature wants us to see him be in the wrong. Due to the film’s ambiguous ending, we’ll never know what really happened to Hae-mi or if Ben actually did anything wrong, but how these characters make us think and feel is more important to the film’s symbolic function than the actual plot.
These two characters are able to represent the two sides of toxic masculinity: the obvious kind, and the more sinister, lurking type. Jong-su is a case of toxicity in plain sight. He’s selfish, he uses women, he’s possessive, and he crosses boundaries that he shouldn’t. He still has some empathetic points, such as his familial and economic situations, but overall, he’s a pretty unlikable person. Ben, on the other hand, has all the same traits, but he knows how to manipulate people into thinking he doesn’t. On a surface level, he treats women with respect and kindness, but hiding underneath the charm he’s just using them for his own perverted delusions. He makes himself seem interesting and confident, but not too much that he seems full of himself. Ben is a puppet master of everyone around him, hiding his toxic traits in plain sight. Men like Ben exist everywhere, but they ultimately get away with their actions because people don’t want to hate an attractive, charming rich man. But, for Jong-su, people are more okay calling him out because his traits are in plain sight, and people always want a reason to vilify the poor. That’s not to justify Jong-su’s actions by any means, but is that obvious type of toxic masculinity any worse than the manipulative kind? No. It’s not.
That’s part of what makes Burning so brilliant. Layered within the intricate mystery of the plot and the symbolic criticism of classism, Lee is also able to critique masculinity in modern day society in a way that typically isn’t shown. Toxic masculinity is about so much more than the stereotypical violence and blatant misogyny that’s usually associated with it. It’s about men’s narcissist ability to control everyone around them, and how the rest of the world just lets them get away with their actions. It’s about entitlement and manipulation. And the fact that so many people came out of the film searching for a way to try and prove that Ben didn’t do it proves this point completely. Society has trained us to forgive and justify men like these actions so much that it even flows into our understanding of fiction. These two contrasting characters and performances from Yoo and Yeun show the two worst sides of masculinity amongst jealousy, arson, and a deeply unsettling mystery at the heart of Lee Chang-Dong’s masterpiece.