Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 04, 2020 6:40 am 
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KIM DO-YOUNG: KIM JI-YOUNG BORN 1982 / 82년생 김지영 (2019) -virtual 2020 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL )


A well off young woman seen as a victim of ingrained misogyny in Korean society

Kim Ji-young Born 1982 is a conscientious issue picture. It's about female discontent and unfair male dominance even in upper middle class contemporary Korean society, and is based on the eponymous bestselling semi-autobiographical novel about a typical young woman: "Kim Yi-young" is like "Jane Doe" in Korean. These basics could not be more clear, and are familiar from other societies where situations and feelings are quite similar. In the film, the details - which it's said have aroused strong arguments* or even caused breakups between couples in Korea - can be confusing to sort out. The film provides a sequence of scenes and flashbacks whose interrelationship isn't so easy to follow, though it is evident that despite advances, and well educated women working in executive positions, Korean society remains highly patriarchal, and older generation women can tend to reenforce that. And this is a film that obviously needs to be seen. The specifics may be elusive, the film may have failings, but the subject is so important the book has been translated into over a dozen languages.

The message may be confused by the complexity of the protagonist's situation, or just be presented confusingly. Kim Ji-young has worked at a firm where some women have - well, one has anyway - a respected position, even though the males get promoted first. She may have found this work challenging and interesting - her female boss was encouraging - or a pain in the neck. Now she is at home to care for her new baby. The rigid relationships of dealing with her in-laws at holiday time may drive her nuts. She may simply be suffering from postpartum depression. She may just be tired of being cooped up in the house all the time (and this is why she thinks of taking a part time job at a local shop. Or she may just be losing her mental stability for reasons that have nothing at all to do with her current situation. But the story's point must be that the protagonist's experience of a totally male-dominated sexist world has driven her literally mad - as an only way out.

Unfortunately, this immaculate-looking, well cast and acted film is a little opaque. It doesn't provide very many clear guidelines, particularly in indicating the chronology of scenes set at different times, and some "scene skips" are so rapid it's not clear who the new characters are. Through depicting the protagonist as largely a helpless victim, the film fails to show what's actually going on inside her, but perhaps she does not know.

Then there is the prolonged issue of Ji-young's returning to work, when her husband offers to take a year of paternity leave so she can do it, but family members balk, and she won't be able to earn as much at the same level. Kim Ji-young's husband Jung Dae-Hyun(played by the rangy, serenely authoritative and sexy Gong Yoo) becomes ambiguous in all this. It's not clear what he really wants; he may not know. He promised to help when pushing to have a baby, he makes the paternity leave offer, but then he tells Ji-young she's not well, and proves she has acted strangely.

Perusal of a Guardian review of the source book shows it is differently organized, being mostly a linear chronological account by the psychiatrist the woman goes to. This structure, the reviewer, Sarah Shin, argues, is used to convey a sense of a"claustrophobic" as well as "airless, unbearably dull world." That aim must explain the tidiness of all the interiors in the film as well, though sometimes they just feel glossy and bland.

But the film may not convey some of the author, Cho Nam-joo's points as well as the her book, or the film's subtitles may lose subtleties that are embedded in the Koran dialogue. Korean is uniquely structured in its complex linguistic distinctions among generations and status levels. When the protagonist starts speaking like her mother at the family gathering and her father-in-law is outraged, subtitles can't convey this very well. Indeed some points (quoted in the review) are made by statement, "told" rather than "shown," e.g. "The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and customs had not, which meant the world hadn’t actually changed at all." (This is a statement quoted from the book in the Guardian review.)

The group scenes nonetheless are what work best, in themselves, even if they don't fit together into a cogent whole: they show the subtle tensions that may exist in all interactions where people aren't happy with their situation, but can't overtly show that - yet keep constantly almost showing it. The blurb for the festival presentation suggests Kim Ji-young (Yu-mi Jung) starts having visions or being possessed. But at the family gathering when her husband whisks her away, saying she's unwell, it merely seems she has spoken up out of anger and frustration. This is the kind of moment when a sense of alien family pressure seems at its most intense.

The book came out at a particularly opportune time of much heightened Korean awareness of gender inequality (see theGuardian review). Non-Korean viewers should know particularly what happened in Korea when Kim Ji-young's mother's wish of a woman president came true - the worsening gender inequality, the patriarchal authoritarianism, the scandal and ouster, the counter reaction, the new movement for a feminist consciousness. The film may be less opportune, or serve a different audience.

Euny Hong's New York Times review of the book is more blunt. She says the book shows the "banality of the evil that is misogyny," that the subject is "young stay-at-home mother driven to a psychotic break" (by that misogyny as it impacts her), and adds that this story forced her to confront her own "traumatic experiences" that she had pretended were "nothing out of the ordinary" (perhaps they weren't!). She also writes that the book became a kind oof Uncle Tom's Cabin for gender roles in Korea. She is astute and specific in highlighting details of the book's Korean dialogue that show how the accomplished and ambitious Ji-young is abused by men from childhood to the present. She likes the translator's choice of a word in the subtitles, suggesting they're well done. But as a non-Korean, one can't help feeling much of the heft and meaning of this film remain allusive. It's not entertaining and accessible to a western audience like a Hong Sang-soo film (especially when one has seen a dozen of those!).

Sarah Shin, the Guardian reviewer, ties the book in with Bong Joon-ho's Parasite. Let's hope that the social commentary here is more subtle and precise.

Kim Ji-young: Born 1982 / 82년생 김지영, 118 mins., opened in Korea in Oct. 2019, showed in the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival Nov. 2019, and opened in many other countries in Nov. and subsequently. Received a number of nominations and awards in Korea. Screened for this review as part of the 2020 virtual New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12, 2020).

*See BBC News Korean (Hyung Eun Kim) for more about reactions to the film in Korea.

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