Double Feature: Where, Oh Where, Can My Baby Be? (Burning & The Vanishing)
Contrary to the somewhat giddy title, this is not a happy double feature. These two movies center around male protagonists trying to find a woman who has mysteriously disappeared. There are decidedly no happy endings, no resolutions, and nothing to feel good about. So, like, content warning, I guess.
Leading feature: Burning (2018)
Korean director Lee Chang-dong has a penchant for showing how easily tragedy befalls normal, everyday humans–especially women. His female characters tend to be rather ill-fated, and though we never know for sure what happens to Haemi (Jong-seo Jun), the central female protagonist in Burning, the outlook is bleak.
Based on Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” [Ed note: Thanks to our eagle-eyed reader AJ for this!] which was inspired by Faulkner’s short story, Burning revolves around three people brought together by coincidence and the patterns of behavior they fall into. Haemi, an attractive young lady upon whom the obsessive plot rotates, spots her old classmate Jongsu (Yoo Ah-In) while working as a promotion girl in Seoul. She tells him he probably doesn’t recognize her because of all the plastic surgery she’s had. They begin a vague relationship, and Haemi asks Jongsu to watch her cat for her when she leaves town.
Despite having what looks like a low-paying job, Haemi has saved up to go to Africa for an extended trip. Jongsu shows up to feed this cat that he never sees and, like a dutiful almost-boyfriend, even picks Haemi up at the airport when she returns. Unbeknownst to Jongsu, Haemi met another Korean, Ben (Steve Yeun), during a crisis situation in Kenya, and they seem to be quite enamored with each other. Ben is handsome, rich, and not entirely forthcoming with what he does for a living. Jongsu, with skepticism and jealousy in equal measure, questions Haemi about Ben’s opulent lifestyle. She gives the unsatisfying response of: “he’s just one of those people who are rich and young.”
All three of them start spending time together; sometimes as a trio or sometimes in an awkward group made up of Ben’s other young, rich friends. Jongsu, an aspiring writer who is taking care of his childhood home while his father is in prison, becomes increasingly suspicious of Ben. He comes especially wary following a sunset confession session where Ben tells him that, every two months or so, he sets fire to an abandoned greenhouse for no reason aside from it being something he likes to do. Not too long after this conversation, Haemi vanishes. She’s stopped returning Jongsu’s calls, her apartment is empty when he goes to see her, and he spots Ben out on the town with a different young lady. He becomes obsessed with finding her, tailing Ben and going to the restaurant that Haemi’s family owns. They tell him that Haemi owes them a lot of money, and they don’t want to see her until she makes good on the debt.
When Ben finally catches Jongsu following him, he invites him inside. Ben explains that Haemi disappearing is just one of her whims, like taking off to Africa and her brief interest in pantomime. Jongsu asks him if he burned down a greenhouse near him, as Ben said he was planning to, and Ben says he did. Jongsu says he’s looked all around and can’t find one that looks torched but Ben just smiles and assures him the deed is done.
With no sign of Haemi, no job, and no purpose, Jongsu spirals deeper into his obsession. He contacts Ben, and they meet in an isolated location. Jongsu says nothing as he stabs Ben repeatedly then douses Ben’s car with gasoline and lights it on fire. He strips naked, tosses his clothes into the blaze, and gets into his truck to drive home, believing he has killed the man responsible for Haemi’s disappearance.
At its strongest, Burning is a character study of a lost generation. Jongsu is unfulfilled and trapped in menial jobs. Haemi wants a life she can’t afford but doesn’t even really know what she wants out of that life. She divulges a quiet secret of wanting to be scrubbed from existence. Not a desire to die, rather a wish of never being granted life in the first place. Ben, referred to as “Gatsby” by Jongsu, appears content with what he has but he gets bored easily and claims to have never cried. Inside a glossy shell, Ben is open about being empty.
Haemi is something of a manic pixie dream girl, but here the traits that would make her quirky and cute in most movies make her seem desperate, deluded, and self-destructive. There is a subtext running through the movie that Jongsu doesn’t really care too much about Haemi as much as he cares about having something tangible in his life. Ben, on the other hand, tears through the enviously tangible in his world with the muted enthusiasm of a sociopathic schoolboy.
In the end, Burning is a movie about meaning but also about the battle of lifestyles. Of people who want for something better, but might not understand what that entails. As the Bard once wrote and William Faulkner once cribbed: “It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.” For a lot of Millennials, your humble narrator included, that’s a pretty apt description of life.
Second Billed: The Vanishing (1988)
Neither of these movies is weaker than the other so placing The Vanishing in the second-billed spot has more to do with the intensity of it rather than the quality. Like Burning, The Vanishing centers on a woman disappearing and a man becoming obsessed with finding out what happened to her.
A couple on a short trip together stop at a rest area along the way. The woman, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), goes into the shop to get some things, and that’s the last Rex (Gene Bervoets) ever sees of her. Over the course of three years, he starts a search for her but finds nothing. He tries to move on, even falling in love again, but can’t get the mystery of what happened to Saskia out of his mind. In a last-ditch attempt for closure, Rex goes on TV to ask if anyone has any information for him. He’s approached by Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) who tells him he knows what happened to Rex’s girlfriend because he’s the one who did it.
Raymond offers Rex a strange deal (along with a thermos full of sleeping-pill spiked coffee) that nobody in their right mind would take. But since Rex isn’t, and hasn’t been in his right mind for three years, he agrees. Raymond tells him that he’ll know exactly what happened to Saskia because it will happen to him. Rex accepts the conditions, drinks the coffee, and wakes up buried inside of a coffin. His screams for help become a nervous, hysterical laughter as he realizes the depths of his obsession and how it led him here. Raymond, meanwhile, sits outside with his family at his lovely country home, smiling pleasantly.
Whereas Ben in Burning is slick and handsome, Raymond is the most average person one could ever meet. He doesn’t even seem to be particularly evil and certainly comes across as a mild-mannered family man. In a flashback to his childhood, we see that he’s always felt a bit out of sync with the rest of the world. Like Ben, he doesn’t register emotion the way most normal people do. His intent to do something sick is almost out of curiosity than compulsion, and there is a hint that he might genuinely think he’s being helpful to Rex.
Rex, throughout the movie up to his final claustrophobic moments, morphs from distant companion to neurotic detective. Saskia was someone he was hesitant to commit to only minutes before she vanished only to become his reason for living and dying. He is not lured into a trap by Raymond; he is hardly even seen by him at the rest area. His own relentless drive got him killed, a sad truth that occurs to him in the darkness of a nailed coffin.
Between the two main men in both movies, there is a running theme of them being more concerned with the mystery of the women instead of the women themselves. Jongsu certainly sees himself as the dashing knight swooping in to save the captured princess, while Rex has no such delusions. For Rex, it’s about closure and answers, two things we know don’t often come easy in life.
Thematic similarities: Mysterious disappearances, obsession, bleak endings, desire for fulfillment
Aesthetic similarities: Naturalistic style, complex use of light and dark