Two decades ago, I took my final school exams. Whilst at the time it seemed the most important thing in my life, now I cannot even remember my results. I recall working hard, but when I see films like Reach for the Sky, my teenage study sessions seem like nothing more than a joke. The South Korean school system has gained international recognition in the last few years for both positive and negative reasons. On the positive side, the South Korean system has seen the nation develop from mass illiteracy to become one of the most educated countries in the world inside two generations. Nations such as the USA and UK have been studying the South Korean system to see what they can learn from the country that has produced the brilliant, innovative minds that have helped transform the South Korean economy into one of the worlds strongest. However, the negatives of the system are equally notable. Korean students are the most stressed in the world. Suicide rates are the highest in any OECD country and bullying and extreme parental pressure is rife in a system where one exam can determine your entire life.
Reach for the Sky, a collaboration between local filmmaker Wooyoung Choi and Belgian director Steven Dhoedt, is a fascinating documentary about an almost surreal educational experience. Every year on the second Thursday in November more than half a million high-school students take part in the National University Exam, known as Suneung. Unlike in other systems, students can retake the Suneung if their results are not good enough and with only 1% able to enter the illustrious SKY Universities (Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University) the retake and exam preparation industry is a vast and lucrative business. South Korea continues to be highly hierarchical and attending SKY will ensure not just your future but also the social standing of your family.
The film focuses on three students and their families. Hyeon-wha is retaking the exam after unsatisfactory results the previous year. Her parents are paying a fortune for her to attend the Eetos Private Academy that is offering intensive preparation for the Suneung. Hye-in is in middle school and is taking the exam for the first time. Unlike Hyeon-wha, her family are less clued up on what it takes to succeed in these educational hunger-games and we see her rather lost in the whole process. The most tragic student is perhaps Minjoon, who is also resitting the exam, but he and his parents are acutely aware that is he once again failing and they are all concerned what his future will hold as a result.
A fourth player is perhaps the ideal personification of the education industry that has flourished in the Korean system. Kim Ki-hoon is a multi-millionaire who teaches at Megastudy, one of the biggest private education institutions in Korea. Kim runs his own textbook publishing company and over 1.5 million students have bought his online lectures making him a bona fide celebrity teacher. The Suneung is about more that a test as we see every aspect of society getting involved in the process. Religious institutes of all denominations are shown as devoting multiple services to praying for those undertaking the test. Parents bankrupt themselves to ensure their children can attend the best cram and revision schools. The film explores the extreme lengths that the local authorities go to help these students achieve their best on the actual exam day. Flights are grounded during the oral exam session, office workers are instructed to start work an hour later so as not to impede the flow of students entering the exam centres, and special police vehicles are on hand to drive any stranded students to the test centres.
I cannot reveal the results here but it is testament to the film that I actually felt sick with anxiety for the students when the scores are finally revealed on camera. Via this tension, Reach for the Sky is highly critical of a system that places such pressure on young people. All the students are focusing on the exam with little love of learning developing despite all the long hours at the books. As Hyeon-wha concludes at the end of the film she never considered why she was studying. Reach for the Sky is ultimately critical of system that is driving vast numbers of young people to depression (and death although that is not presented in the film) without considering the rationale behind such an intensive and hierarchal process.
Reach for the Sky was shown on November 14 at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.