One of my goals at the VIFF is to see at least one film which is a nation’s entry into the Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The first of three I saw during the VIFF was Burning from South Korea.
The film begins with Lee Jong-su performing odd jobs in Paju. One day he runs into a former neighbor and classmate from his childhood. Her name is Shin Mae-hi. Mae-hi confesses to Jong-su that she always liked him but he always ignored her. Could it be because he was a farmer’s son and she was more urban? At the date later on, Mae-hi tells Jong-su that she has pursued an acting career. She’s disappointed to see that Jong-su hasn’t pursued a career in writing as he wanted to do in college.
The romance sparks up so high, they have sex in her apartment. She lets Jong-su know she will have an acting gig in Nairobi very soon and she wants him to feed her cat. He agrees. Jong-su never sees the cat, but always sees the food gone and the litterbox used. Also when he’s at her place, he masturbates in her bedroom. Mae-hi returns, but three days later than expected because of a terror warning. Mae-hi also returns with a Korean man named Ben: a man she bonded with during the crisis. The three have dinner together. Mae-hi recalls a sunset she saw during the trip. She cries, confessing she wanted to disappear. Ben doesn’t understand why people cry and admits he never cried himself.
Jong-su has things to take care of back home. He has to look after the family house and farm as his father is awaiting trial. Jong-su often watches the relationship with Mae-hi and Ben from afar with envy. However he’s suspicious of Ben. Ben is confident, but doesn’t mention what he does for a living. Jong-su pays a visit to Ben’s place and notices an area where there is a lot of women’s jewelry and decorations in the bathroom. Jong-su later joins the couple in a restaurant. There Mae-hi shows them the dance she learned in Nairobi. Jong-su likes what he sees, but he notices Ben is unamused.
The trio then go to Jong-su’s farm where they find themselves getting high and Hae-mi dancing topless. Hae-mi recalls a memory where Jong-su rescues her from a well. After Hae-mi falls asleep on a sofa, Ben makes a confession to Jong-su that he like to burn an abandoned greenhouse every two months. He notes his area is full of greenhouses. Ben claims the next burning will be close to Jong-su’s house. Ben also tells Jong-su that Hae-mi considers him her best friend. But as she awakens from her drunkenness, Jong-su calls her a whore as they leave.
Jong-su takes this to heart as he is careful over the neighborhood to spot out of any gas houses are burned down. None are, but he receives something even more disturbing. He received a phone call from Hae-mi one night that cut out after that cut off after a few seconds of ambiguous noises. The concern grows as Jong-su makes call after call to Hae-mi with no response. He goes to her apartment which is surprisingly clean and shows no sign of the cat. Jong-su contact’s Hae-mi’s family, but they say they haven’t heard from her in some time and she owes them a lot of money. Even Ben makes claim of Hae-mi not returning calls as Jong-su approaches him.
Suspicious of it all, Jong-su starts stalking Ben. Ben is unaware that Jong-su is stalking him, but treats Jong-su with friendliness. Ben even introduces Jung-su to his new girlfriend and even says they have a new cat. As Jong-su makes his way to the bathroom, he sees the watch he gave Hae-mi. Looks like the truth about Ben and what happened to Hae-mi came out. It’s just after Jong-su’s father has been sentenced that we get the final act of the drama.
The film is a quiet mystery. I call it quiet because there is little if any score. The film quietly lets the events unravel as they happen. It lets the facts quietly but surely become clearer over time. We learn more about what happened to Mae-hi. Mae-hi may be very free as is expected of an artistic person, but no sign of her for a long time does rise to suspicion. We soon learn more about Ben. He comes across cool and confident and the type of person who wouldn’t hurt anyone, but it’s Jong-su who sees Ben’s true colors. We also learn more about Jong-su. Jong-su comes off as an awkward son of a temperamental farmer undecided about his dreams. Jong-su comes as the type of person too awkward to do anything seriously violent, but as truths unfold, the monster inside him comes out. The story comes just as his father is sentenced for his violent actions, Jong-su becomes judge, jury, and executioner on Ben. Having all this happen in a film with no score or any other cinematic gimmicks works well for the film. I think something like a musical score may have hurt the drama.
In addition, the film answers more with what we don’t see than what we see. The value of the unseen is first given credit involving the scenes of tending to Hae-mi’s unseen cat. We never see the cat and neither does Jong-su, but the food is eaten and the litterbox is used. The unseen is key for resolving the mystery of Ben. The unseen is where Ben acquired all the female jewelry and decorations. He talks of his ‘hobby’ of burning gashouses down. However it becomes more obvious about what these burning are. And it took the piece of Hae-mi’s jewelry just after Hae-mi goes missing to get the sense that Ben is a killer, and the burnings is a secret word for murder. It’s at the end that the burnt gashouse ends up being Ben’s car with a fatally-wounded Ben inside.
Top credits go to Lee Chang-dong. Lee has had an impressive film making career in South Korea. However it was 2003’s Oasis where he won the Best Director award at the Venice Film festival that he first caught international notice as well as the Chief Dan George Humanitarian Award at VIFF 2003. Poetry took his career to a new height after he won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. This film in which he directs and co-wrote the script with Oh Jung-mi is an excellent work of its own. It won the FIPRESCI Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Fest. Awards aside, the film does keep one intrigued. The story doesn’t make a lot of sense at first, but the drama slowly builds over time. Yoo Ah-In does a very good job as Jong-su. He does a great job of playing a character who first seems harmless, but has a monster inside of him. Steven Yeun, a Korean émigré to the United States, does a good job as playing a character cool and calm, but has a dark secret. Jeon Jong-seo is also very good as the free-spirited Hae-mi.
Burning is a suspense that starts quiet but slowly builds over time. Its quiet drama is its best asset and adds to the film.
Elle was one of those films that came around the time of the Academy Awards. It has a lot of interesting elements, but it features a lot of elements some would first find unwatchable. Is it worth it?
The film begins with a cat witnessing the rape of her owner Michele LeBlanc (that’s right). The masked rapist immediately leaves. Michele just calmly cleans up themes and resumes her life, but doesn’t call the police. Michele returns back to her job as CEO of a video game company where her male employees either lust after her or view her as a ‘bitch.’ She tries to maintain a relationship with her son Vincent but feels detached as she feels he’s being controlled by her pregnant girlfriend. She has a troubled relationship with her mother who is narcissistic and has a thing for younger men. She’s having a love affair with Robert, the husband of her best friend and business partner Anna, but also has caught the eye of her new neighbor Patrick, although his devoutly Catholic wife Anna is unaware of this. Michele also has a troubled past.
The reason why Michele doesn’t call the police is because she has a sordid past. She is the daughter of a mass murderer who was arrested and imprisoned over 40 years ago when Michele was 10 years-old and even involved Michele in his murder spree. His parole hearing is coming up and the events from the past still haunt her. Her friends plead for her to report the rape to the police but Michele won’t, fearing the police have it in for her. Life is hard for Michele as she receives harassing text messages form a man claiming to watch her. She’s also the victim of a hacked video game which shows an alien with her face being raped by another alien. She learns the male colleague who made the hacked video game is infatuated with her but not the rapist. Her ex-husband learned of the news and tried looking out for her safety.
Christmas only adds to the stress as her mother falls into a stroke and her dying wish to Michele is to see her father. Michele tells her son Vincent she believes he’s not the father of his girlfriend’s child. The rapist returns for the third time, but Michele takes of the mask to discover it’s Patrick. Even though she now knows, she still doesn’t call the police nor have an alarm installed in her house.
Michele goes to visit her father in prison only to learn he hung himself. On the ride home, she gets into a car accident. She calls her friends instead of an ambulance, but the only one who responds to the call is Patrick. Michele gives Patrick a shocking confession of her feelings toward him which leaves Patrick shocked and confused. Then the day of the celebration of the launch of the new video game. At the party, she confessed to Anne her affair with Robert, which breaks Anna’s heart. The story ends with a tensely climactic moment and an ending that comes across as triumphant.
The thing about this film is that it deals with a complicated cat-and-mouse situation. Michele wants to get her rapist arrested but she is afraid to call the police, feeling they’re after her. That could also explain why she wouldn’t call an ambulance after the car crash: because of her past. She has a sense of who did it, but she feels an attraction to him. She is caught in situations in her work, in her family and even within her circle of friends at the same time. It’s enough to make anyone snap. It even turns her into a spiteful bitter person to whomever she meets up with. You hope that her rapist is caught but you’re left wondering how will it end? Will he be caught? Will Michele be the one who ends up killed? Will her rapist end up her new lover? It keeps you intrigued.
One thing about this is that this film is a psychological thriller that succeeds in taking subject matter that is disturbing and even unwatchable and turns it into a story that becomes positive in the end. Normally I am very nervous about the subject of rape in a film. In fact the very opening scene of the rape (as witnessed by the cat) and her bleeding vagina in the bath really had me questioning what Paul Verhoeven was up to. I’ll admit I had a mistrust to Verhoeven because I know he has a reputation for films like Basic Instinct and Showgirls. I still haven’t forgotten the misogyny of the latter and I was anticipating misogyny in the film at first. Even the scene that appears like Michele is consenting to the rape of Patrick makes me wonder, in addition to knowing Michele actually gets sexual satisfaction from it. In the end, the film delivers a strong female character who is able to piece the puzzle together. It’s at the end we see Michele as if she triumphed in the situation.
SPOILER ALERT – IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING, BYPASS THIS PARAGRAPH: The ending is a surprise as well. Throughout the whole film, you see Michele as a bitter, hurting, troubled woman with the world seemingly against her or bothering her in every which way. However it’s right after Patrick is killed that everything magically becomes right. We see how Rebecca isn’t as hurt over Patrick’s death as she’s moving out, and makes it obvious she knew what Patrick was up to. We see how Vincent has been able to get better in his career and relationship. We see how Michele is finally able to make peace with her father. We also see how Michele makes peace with both Josie and Anna as they’ve both left Robert, and even resumes the strong friendship with Anna. It’s like life for all during the time of Michele being raped was what was causing friction in the lives of Michele and those around her, and it was Patrick’s death at the hands of Vincent that set everything right for all. Normally something like that wouldn’t work in terms of a story. I mean how is it possible for a rape victim to recover from what happened seemingly overnight? But the way it was played out in the story made it look very believable and made it look like the story ended on the right note. Quite an accomplishment, especially for a psychological thriller.
This film is actually an adaptation of a French novel titled Oh. I’ve never read the novel but David Birke does a very good job in creating a story that’s both a psychological thriller and a big puzzle that somehow is able to get all the pieces to fit in the end. Paul Verhoeven also did a good job of directing. I will admit I did get suspicious with him, especially after seeing certain scenes. However it’s in the end that I feel he did a very good job of creating a strong female character despite appearing to push the envelope at times. However making the story work also came down to Isabelle Huppert in her performance of the protagonist Michele. She had to portray a character who seemed to have everything pushing her to snap but somehow keep her composure throughout the ordeal, despite being bitter and spiteful, and appear triumphant in the end. She accomplished that feat excellently. Supporting performances of note include Laurent Lafitte as the troubled neighbor Patrick and Anne Consigny as Anna: the friend caught in the love triangle.
Elle begins as a film that one would expect to be misogynist, but instead paves the way for a female character who triumphs in the end. It’s the film’s surprising twists and turns that make it.