Burning: Mystery of Youth
Burning: Mystery of Youth
  • Kang Hee-won
  • 승인 2018.07.16 23:45
  • 댓글 26
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Culture Column

09, 07, 2018

Kang Hee-won Culture Reporter

                              Burning: Mystery of Youth

©Pine House Film


“This film is about youths. The present day and life might look mysterious to young people. Giving the sense of this ambiguity is the intention of this film.”

  • Director Lee Chang-dong –

“Although Burning is R-rated, I think it is teenagers who should watch this movie.”

  • Actor Yoo Ah-in –

                  As we can see from above interviews, the Korean film Burning is not just a mystery thriller movie that merely focuses on entertainment of the genre. This film talks about rage, frustration, and helplessness that the youths of Korea have suffered from recent society. The Sogang Herald, students’ press organization, analyzes and reviews the various factors of the film, probing into the message that the film tries to deliver to young people.


  • Symbolic Scenes

# Scene 1. Jong-soo gives up his part-time job interview when he finds out that the interviewer forces meaningless discipline.

                  This scene represents the social phenomenon called “kkondae.” The word is used when the old generation forces oppressive discipline and standards to young people ignoring their own way of life. According to a survey from an online research corporation Embrain, people think authoritarian sense of value which gives people desire to be shown superior to other people is a crucial factor that forms kkondae culture. The survey also says that the majority think that this culture is not confined to old people. Likewise sometimes kkondae has nothing to do with generation. This culture can also be found in junior and senior relations in organizations like school and workplace. In most of these cases, seniors abuse their authority to juniors. For this reason juniors should endure unreasonable treatment in order to survive in the group. If this kind of culture becomes prevalent among people, society may suffer from conflicts of generation and youth’s frustration, because it can bring obstacles to young people’s freedom and opportunities.


# Scene 2. Beside the waving Korean flag, Hae-mi performs a great hunger dance with her top taken off, as she gets high on marijuana.

                  The great hunger dance which is a tradition of an African tribe called “Bushman” represents the eagerness toward the true meaning of life. Therefore, Hae-mi’s great hunger dance symbolizes young people’s ideal regarding their own freedom and self-realization. Meanwhile, the waving Korean flag is used as a metaphor for the social system and ideology that restrains youth’s potential. Eventually, the overall meaning of this scene is a contradiction of the word “cheongchun,” a Korean term which indicates young people. Despite the fact that the literal meaning of this word is “blooming spring,” youths in Korea wither because of unemployment and social biases including credentialism. Because of this nonsense, young Koreans are not able to dream about promising future having difficulty in finding true meaning of life.


# Scene 3. Ben is eating out happily with his family in the restaurant where the drawing Samgyehwataek-fire is hung on the wall.       

                  The drawing Samgyehwataek-fire by Lim Ok-sang depicts the tragedy of Yongsan in 2009. The victims of this catastrophe were evictees of Yongsan who were having a hard time making their living. They were killed by fire during their protest that goes against the redevelopment compensation policy. Considering the social status of the victims, the scene in which Ben’s wealthy family has a meal beside the painting can be regarded as a criticism on the culture that rich people consume the suffering of powerless commoners for their cultural satisfaction. This criticism explicitly shows severe economic inequality in Korea which continues generation after generation giving unfairness to a starting line of career. In fact, this unfairness is one of the mysteries that messes Jong-soo up throughout the film.

  • Ending of Burning                                               

Although Burning’s ending is very open to debate, this article will cover only one interpretation: Ben did not kill Hae-mi and Jong-soo killed Ben due to their personal feeling. To fully understand the meaning of the ending, we should go back to the beginning of the film.

                  For Jong-soo, Hae-mi who has an unconstrained soul is a spiritual refuge that gives him strength to withstand all the unreasonable situation he suffers from because of his young age. When Hae-mi, the only joy in his life, suddenly vanishes, Jong-soo becomes desperate to find her and begins to shadow Ben, looking for Hae-mi’s trace. During this process, Jong-soo witnesses Ben’s luxurious life and his happy family which contrasts with his situation and this makes Jong-soo have a sense of deprivation. Even worse, Jong-soo’s memories related to Hae-mi including the cat named “Boil” and childhood wells change into something that do not exist in the first place. That is, he finds out that his hope is nothing more than a mirage in a desert. Eventually, Jong-soo determines to kill Ben after his father is sentenced to go to jail because he cannot find any answer that can explain the gaping difference in quality of life between him and Ben.  

                  The first message that Burning wants to tell us in the ending is that todays’ youths feel rage because of unreasonable social conditions, like unemployment, credentialism, and abnormal Korean entrance examination policy. In order to fix the nonsense right, we need to know the substance of these problems.


Due to the dull of the economic growth of Korea and reduction of manufacturing business, the chance to get a job has become increasingly low. Therefore, young people who barely graduated from university are very likely to have difficulties in finding the workplace to start their career. Furthermore, settled jobs like public services and office work in major companies are opened only to a tiny minority of youths and the rest of the young people should struggle in the competition for unstable or temporary jobs. If someone even falls behind this stage of competition, he or she would experience enormous oppression and anxiety about the future.

Increasing youths’ unemployment rate (Statistics by Statistics Korea)


Competition of employment in Korea is systematically unfair. In fact, it is a race which everyone gets a different starting line by severe Korean credentialism. In order to enter a prestigious university, people need considerable financial support from parents in their school days. For this reason, a family’s economic status becomes an integral factor that decides the survival in the competition. However, since credentialism is a great tool for the upper class to maintain its status, this phenomenon will continue, forming a vicious circle in society.

Increasing economic burden of education due to credentialism (Statistics by Statistics Korea)

Abnormal Korean Entrance Examination Policy

Because of severe credentialism, abnormal entrance examination policy that values result over process appears and forces students to depend on the single test called Suneung. For this test, students should spend most of their time studying an unpractical curriculum which is not helpful in their future career. Therefore students cannot pursue happiness freely in the period of youth and it leads to mental distress of teenagers. Eventually, it is not surprising that all of these abnormalities in education lower students’ satisfaction with life and increase the teenage suicide rate.

Low satisfaction with life of Korean teenagers (Statistics by OECD) and Korean teenagers’ high suicide ratio (Statistics by Statistics Korea)

Study is the biggest source of Korean teenagers’ stress (Statistics by S’FD)


                  The second message from Burning is that young people also feel helpless since they cannot find out what they rage at. The reason why youths do not know the origin of their frustration is that the target of anger disappears because of narcissism in society. Narcissism in society gives emphasis only to social success. The intense competition for this success forms the atmosphere that makes people ignore and look down on competitors that fall behind. What’s even worse is that this lack of sympathy leads people to think failure is about an individual’s lack of ability and has little correlation with abnormal social system. Therefore, people do not consider reforming the faulty system; they just seek for opportunity to achieve self-improvement. Eventually, this overall social phenomenon leads youths to feel helpless since society forces them to take full responsibility for their own failure. Likewise, in Korean society, some old generation who experienced success in the past cannot understand youth’s failure and blames young people for lack of personal effort. Furthermore they also scorn youths who criticize contradiction of society.

                  Although this film is about mystery, we do not need to dig up the correlation and meaning between stories. What we need to do is just feeling the deep frustration that grows inside Jong-soo throughout the film. Even though Burning does not show specific agonies that young people have suffered from, it sublimates their agonies artistically by using metaphors and symbols. This indirect deliver gives more vivid impression of youths’ pain than concrete examples. For this reason, the audience can notice that the film sincerely empathizes with cheoungchun. We can applaud to this film because it has significance in the fact that it tries to share what it feels like to be a cheongchun in Korea, even though it does not suggest a solution.    


                                                            By Kang Hee-won (Culture Reporter) atdkr98@sogang.ac.kr 

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