A thriller about a missing person. An allegory of class division. A study of generational alienation. A fable about modern consumerism. A dramatisation of psychological breakdown and genetically inherited rage. An analysis of socio-economic disenfranchisement. A critique of toxic masculinity and its concomitant misogyny. A condemnation of middle-class gentrification. A threnody for a traditional Korea that's slowly being replaced by faceless cosmopolitanism. An extended rib on Schrödinger's cat. Beoning is all of these. And none of them. This is a narrative fundamentally built on questions, very few of which are answered definitively. Essentially a psychological drama about three people, although it's possible that only one of those people is real. There are also two cats. Or maybe only one cat. It's a long journey (148 minutes), and, for some, the payoff won't be worth the length of time taken to get there. Others, more used to concrete black-and-white yes-and-no narratives, will be unimpressed with how steadfastly the film refuses to yield its secrets. However, it has an undeniable ability to burrow under your skin, with director Chang-dong Lee's mastery of tone extraordinary to witness, bestowing portentous significance upon the most inanimate of objects, only to later reveal that whilst we were trying to figure out the importance of item a, we missed the significance of item b. The acting is terrific, the cinematography superb, and you could certainly do worse than invest your time in this tantalising filmic Rorschach test.
Set in contemporary South Korea, the film tells the story of Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), an aspiring novelist who is having a hard time writing anything. Working as a part-time delivery man in Seoul, he encounters Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), who claims they went to school together, although he doesn't remember her. She tells him she will shortly be travelling to Africa, and asks him to feed her cat, Boil. He agrees, and the two have sex. Jong-su happily feeds Boil, and even though every time he comes to the apartment, the cat is nowhere to be seen, the food and water are disappearing. A few weeks later, she returns with Ben (Steven Yeun, performing under his birth-name, Yeun Sang-yeop), a confidant, irritatingly polite, and extremely wealthy young man. The trio develop an odd relationship, and one evening, Jong-su admits to Ben that he loves Hae-mi, and Ben tells him about his strange hobby of burning greenhouses. A few days later, Hae-mi is nowhere to be found, and Jong-su, suspecting Ben, sets out to find her.
The film is adapted from Haruki Murakami's (very) short story "Barn Burning", published in The New Yorker in 1983, and later collected in the 1993 anthology, Zo no shometsu (The Elephant Vanishes). "Barn Burning" itself is loosely inspired by William Faulkner's 1939 short story of the same name, something obliquely referenced in the film insofar as Faulkner is Lee's favourite author, and Ben is seen reading a Faulkner anthology.
Boening is masterfully constructed upon a foundation of questions, only a very few of which are answered. Indeed, ambiguity is not solely reserved for the big questions, such as why does Jong-su not remember Hae-mi from school; what happens to Hae-mi; what does Ben do for a living; is his admission that he has never cried evidence of sociopathy; does he really burn down greenhouses. There's a whole host of smaller mysteries running alongside them - why does Hae-mi seem to rig a raffle so that Jong-su wins; what exactly did Jong-su's father do; who is calling his home in the middle of the night and hanging up; why does he stare at his father's knives the way he does; where is his sister; does Boil exist; is Ben's rescue cat the same cat as the never-seen Boil; did Hae-mi really fall down a well? Some (or more) of these questions remain unanswered, although there are certainly clues scattered throughout.
Thematically, the film covers a plethora of issues; toxic masculinity, alpha and beta males, economics and consumerism, class, the place of women in Korean society, sexual jealousy, the death of a bucolical way of life, working-class privations, faceless capitalism, the price of success, hope, writer's block. Of course, some are more foregrounded than others, with economics in particular emphasised. For example, the film cuts from a scene of the trio at a swanky nightclub (into which Ben has ensured they could go) to a scene of Jong-su alone, mucking out the cow stable. The contrast between the lifestyles of the two men couldn't be clearer, with Lee making a generalised point about the disenfranchisement of Korea's working-class youth. The Korea of the film is very much a place of castes, hierarchies of privilege and social standing, with Jong-su and Ben on the opposite end of every spectrum; when Ben is compared to Jay Gatsby, Jong-su sullenly opines, "there are so many Gatsbys in Korea".
The film also engages significantly with gender politics. One of the things that so captivates Jong-su about Hae-mi is her provocative behaviour. Yet later, when she dances topless outside his house, he is disgusted, telling Ben, "only a wh-re acts like that." It's a succinct summary of a societal double-standard; men can behave how they wish, but women must conform to arbitrary expectations. On the other hand, Hae-mi functions primarily to further Jong-su and Ben's arcs, devoid of any real agency herself. An alternative reading is that she is poorly sketched as a character so as to represent a patriarchal society in which women are seen as less complex than men. For the most part, Beoning avoids didacticism on this issue, but to suggest that Hae-mi is simply a badly written character seems to me to be a very superficial interpretation of a film with great depth.
However, there is also the possibility that Hae-mi doesn't actually exist, and in this sense, the fact that she is presented in such sexualised terms is because she is literally a male's fantasy, a sexual obsession born in the disturbed mind of an unreliable narrator. The film is told exclusively from Jong-su's perspective, he is in every scene, and the narrative never shifts to another focal character or to an omniscient viewpoint. With this in mind, everything we see is filtered through Jong-su's ideological outlook; if he attaches significance to an object, the audience is invited to do likewise. Lee masterfully handles this tricky structural device, placing the audience directly into the same (possibly paranoid) headspace as the character. So, for example, when Jong-su sees Ben yawning as Hae-mi is recreating a dance she learned in Kenya, the yawn becomes immensely sinister, because that's how Jong-su interprets it. In this sense, if one theorises that Hae-mi is, in fact, a figment of Jong-su's imagination - an idealisation of a beautiful woman who wants him - then Ben must also originate in Jong-su's mind, functioning as the inverse to Hae-mi; a personification of everything to which Jong-su aspires, but is unable to attain.
One of the most salient motifs, if not necessarily a theme unto itself, is that of disappearance, with references scattered throughout the film - Hae-mi notes that her house in Paju is gone, as is the well she fell into; Jong-su recollects how after his mother left, his father burnt her clothes; when Ben tells Jong-su about his greenhouse hobby, he states, "you can make it disappear as if it never even existed"; Hae-mi literally says she wants to disappear; when Jong-su asks Ben if it's possible Hae-mi has gone on another trip, Ben says, "maybe she disappeared like a puff of smoke". The most important scene in this sense is an early one. Explaining that she's learning pantomime, Hae-mi proceeds to mime peeling and eating a tangerine, telling Jong-su the trick isn't to pretend the tangerine is really there, but to "forget it doesn't exist". This challenge to perception is crucial not just in how Jong-su becomes convinced Hae-mi has met foul play despite the lack of evidence, it also provides a clue for the audience as to how best to parse the film itself.
Of course, for all that, there are a few problems. For one, it's a little too long, and there are occasions when the narrative seems somewhat desultory. I would imagine that a lot of people will dislike the ambiguity. Personally, I loved this aspect and thought Lee handled it magnificently, but it certainly isn't for everyone. A minor issue is that as protagonists go, Jong-su is extremely passive, a character to whom things happen rather than the narrative's driving force. Again, some people will dislike this aspect, but I think it's important that Jong-su is seen as passive, especially in relation to the final scene. Of that scene, it could be seen as disappointingly familiar, something seen in any number of standard genre pieces. I disagree with that, although I can see where the criticism is coming from, as it does conform neatly to the rubric of a quotidian thriller.
All in all, I found Beoning to be a haunting film, one which I couldn't get out of head for days, and I'm keen to see it again. Lee's masterful control of tone is extraordinary, balancing a plethora of themes within a half-social-realist/half-magic-realist milieu. As good an exercise in cinematic suggestiveness as you're likely to see, Lee subtly alters mood so as to manipulate, push, prod, guide, and fool the audience, playing us as if he were a puppet master. The film is such that everything on screen, every word spoken, every background detail could be important. Or not. Fiercely intelligent, deeply nuanced, complexly layered, it's a film that rewards concentration. It is, simply put, the finely crafted work of a distinct and relevant auteur.
Drama / Mystery
Drama / Mystery
Jong-su, a part-time worker, bumps into Hae-mi while delivering, who used to live in the same neighborhood. Hae-mi asks him to look after her cat while she's on a trip to Africa. When Hae-mi comes back, she introduces Ben, a mysterious guy she met in Africa, to Jong-su. One day, Ben visits Jong-su's with Hae-mi and confesses his own secret hobby.
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March 09, 2019 at 08:15 AM