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IMDb and meta-expectations in film

This blog post spoils the entirety of the 2018 film Burning by Lee Chang-dong.

I recently watched the video essay In Praise of Subtle Performance by Thomas Flight. He discusses and showcases examples of subtle acting, where a slight twitch by the actor or a small shift in body language or facial expression can convey a lot of meaning. He contrasts this to 'grander' performances like those that require bodily transformations and more visceral acting (like DiCaprio in The Revenant).

He showcases a small segment of a scene from Burning, in which Jong-su is watching Hae-mi imitate the 'Great Hunger' dance she learned from Africa, and he turns to look at Ben, who:

  1. yawns
  2. notices Jong-su and looks toward him
  3. smiles wryly
  4. chuckles

Hae-mi (who admittedly is performing a strange dance in a restaurant) is mocked by Ben, whose yawn is a recurring visual in the film. Ben imagines Jong-su as a kindred spirit at this moment, as if to say "look at how she is making a fool of herself!"

I thought this segment was an incredible example of subtle acting and decided to watch Burning. So I googled it and landed on the IMDb page of the film. Here is where I encountered a spoiler, which I thought, should not be in the 'blurb' of the film:

Jong-su bumps into a girl who used to live in the same neighborhood, who asks him to look after her cat while she's on a trip to Africa. When back, she introduces Ben, a mysterious guy she met there, who confesses his secret hobby.

Now if you can put two and two together, a 'secret hobby' in a film titled Burning is clearly arson. I was pretty upset that what I imagined was going to be a surprise or plot twist of some kind in the film was spoiled by IMDb.

This was my first 'meta-expectation' of the film. Here's what I mean by meta-expectation:

an expectation you have of the film (mainly of its plot) that only arises due to knowledge gained outside it.

So my first meta-expectation was that there would be arson in the film. The second was that the film is a psychological thriller, which (to me) means weird and confusing things need to happen.

Now the thing is that this movie is long and slow. I had a lot of time to anticipate my meta-expectations.

The film does drip feed you weird things from the start, like how it's not clear if Hae-mi's cat exists, or the phone calls that Jong-su receives, and a bit later if the well exists. I still wanted more. I wanted something big, something that would tie it all together. I was certain more was coming.

When Ben 'admits' that he 'burns greenhouses', both the meta-expectations were at the forefront of my brain. The arson spoiler was now obviously true. Something big was going to happen.

How wrong I was.

When Hae-mi's disappearance coincides with Jong-su's inability to find any burnt greenhouses, you begin to think "Okay, it's a metaphor for killing women". But by the end, it is not clear if Ben is even a murderer. Was he simply toying with Jong-su? Was the latter half Jong-su's novel? Did Jong-su kill Ben in real life? Does Ben kill a woman every two months after becoming bored with them?

The only certainty is that Ben is not an arsonist. So the spoiler turns out to not be a spoiler at all, or at least not literally. There goes meta-expectation 1.

Meta-expectation 2, is mostly met but there isn't a grand reveal like in The Handmaiden or in Prisoners. Instead, more small tidbits are shown to further confuse the audience, mainly Ben having Hae-mi's cat and watch, along with his make-up box. It's also puzzling why Ben shows up to meet Jong-su at the end, and he sounds genuine when he asks about Hae-mi's whereabouts. If he is the psychopath (and can fake his concern) and has killed Hae-mi, why does he show up? Does he expect Jong-su to succeed him? Does he feel his time has come?

What actually happened?

In any case, I learnt this: I should watch more films completely blind, and try not to let my preconceived notions influence my expectations.