Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 (South Korea, 2019) [NYAFF 2020]

Cho Nam-joo’s novel Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 has been hailed as one of the key South Korean modern feminists texts. Given the wider readership of both the Korean original and various translations, it would only be a matter of time before a screen version was made. Given the success of the book, it is unsurprising that the film proved to be such a huge hit in South Korea. There had been a tremendous sense of anticipation around the film given the books controversy and it filled 829,000 seats (USD 6.29 million) in its first weekend of showing.  For those who are not Korea-watchers, the controversy around the novel was not so much the content but a deep-seated aversion amongst a subset of Korean society to anything that can be identified as ‘feminist’ as broadly defined. South Korea, which ranks 118th out of 144 countries in the latest United Nations Development Programme gender inequality index, has witnessed the rise of its own Me Too movement and significant calls for gender equality to be actively tackled. It was almost impossible for the film to not be embroiled in these debates and as a result, the films ranking in online reviewing sites has seen some clear gender divides and, as with films such as Captain Marvel (2019), a concerted effort by groups of male activists to lower the films ranking.  Many of those involved in the film have reported online trolling and abuse so bringing the film to the screen has not been an easy process. Very pleasingly, the film offers women both in front and behind the camera. Kim Do-yeong is perhaps better known as an actress and this is her first feature film as a director while screenwriter Yoo Yuong-ah has a long track record in Korean films and drama series.

They have chosen to change and develop the book in various ways. Whilst the book offered a series of smaller vignettes, the film takes a more linear approach to the story and actually ends on the last scene of the book. The main change is that Ji-young husband and wider family play a much more sustained and developed role. The film links Ji-young’s plight to her mothers in a much more direct way as Ji-young takes on the persona of her grandmother and apologies to her mother for her harsh upbringing and endless sacrifices she was forced to make for her bothers (Ji-young’s uncles). Ji-young’s own mother justifiably rants and rails against her husband’s endless misogyny and neglect of his two daughters in favour of his only son.

The film has many strengths. Key is the cast of the film who are all excellent. Gong Yoo as Jun Dae-hyun gives his usual solid and nuanced turn as her worried and conflicted husband. Jung Yu-mi as Ji-young is a wonderful piece of casting as she is a nuanced and confident actor who manages to present a woman in quiet turmoil with a subtle charm that draws the viewing into Ji-young’s world that from one angle looks wonderful, and yet, as we discover, hides loss, neglect and injustice. There are several powerful scenes and which clearly highlight the gender divides which exist in South Korea. One of the most disturbing examples of gendered violence has been the well charted case of molka/몰카 where illegal cameras are employed in public bathrooms, places of work and schools and colleagues. The footage is then uploaded onto sites for wider distribution. The film naturally has to deal with this event and whilst the book has the cameras discovered after Ji-young has left her office, in the film she, and her female co-workers are horrified to discover that once of their work bathrooms has been hacked. This is perhaps one of the most powerful scenes in the film as this violation of their privacy gradually dawns on the women as they sit around a table discussing what they can do. Shamefully, what becomes clear is that there is nothing they can do.  There will be no sanctioning of the male staff members who watched the films and the culprit will be allowed to continue his career unimpeded. Any women who chooses to keep working after marriage and childbirth are discussed in highly negative terms and for Ji-young, having a child is the death knell for her career as she enters the cycle of home, child-care and domestic tasks.

Whilst the film keeps the main essence of the book, there are some clear differences. Whilst the book ends on Ji-young sobbing on her husband’s shoulder about her sense of depression and failure at her life and her (male) psychiatrist musing he will have to ensure his new secretary is unmarried, the film chooses a far more upbeat ending. We see Ji-young facing her future with a new sense of hope and fulfillment. She has a female therapist, her husband is taking on more childcare, and her family are offering her more support than previously. The film appears to imply a sense of solution – that with education, the situation of women can change. We see Dae-hyun sitting through a compulsory course on sexual harassment in the workplace and we see a couple of his male colleagues and indeed Dae-hyun himself, considering the benefits of paternity leave.  Ji-young’s father begins to support and care for his daughter and Dae-hyun even attempts to stand up to his own mother in her treatment of Ji-young. Whilst this more sanitised version makes for a more upbeat and enjoyable film, it does negate the very real concerns the novel raises about the continuing status of women in South Korea.  Still, I enjoyed Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 and it makes a welcome change to see the lives and experiences of modern Korean women, both positive and negative, presented on the big screen.

Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 is streaming as part of the New York Asian Film Festival which runs from August 28 to September 12.