Kathy Park on Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982
November 3, 2020
Guest post by Kathy Park, student at New York University
Around halfway into Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982, protagonist Ji-Young remembers a conversation she had with her mother when she was younger. Her mother comments on her teacher’s handwriting on her homework, and mentions that she wanted to become a teacher when she was younger. Ji-Young asks, “Why didn’t you become one?” She explains that she couldn’t get higher education because her parents made her work to financially support the education of her brothers. “It’s okay. Women lived like that back then,” she says.
I grew up in Seoul, South Korea, surrounded by strong women. The all-too-familiar exchange between Ji-Young and her mother reminded me of the countless stories of limited opportunities and dreams cut short that I’ve heard from my mother, grandmother, and aunts growing up. As a young girl, I assigned the circumstances that confined the women that raised me as a characteristic of the past — a set of rules that I was lucky enough to be liberated from. “Thank goodness the times have changed,” I would naively think to myself, grateful for the education and relatively “equal” opportunities that women are given today.
But what Kim Ji-Young and its original book by Cho Nam-ju, or rather their receptions in Korea, reveal, is that the fight for gender equality in our society still has a long, treacherous way to go. The storm of controversy that both the novel and the movie’s release engendered in popular discourse is mostly indicative of the fact that the term feminism, and the ideas it entails, still holds an oddly distorted, negatively connotated form in the general consciousness. Female celebrities who shared the book on their social media received hate comments from male fans to a point where they had to take their posts down. Actress Jung Yu-mi faced extreme backlash for signing on to play Ji-Young. A typical male reaction to the movie was downright rejection, labeling it as a “femi-film” and purposely bombing the online ratings without even watching it — Korean media outlets have reported on this “rating war”; perhaps even more discouraging were the responses that doubted the significance of the issues portrayed in the film from both men AND women (mostly older).
These reactions are largely informed by the extremist gender discourse online. The hate-driven targeting toward the opposite gender on controversial online communities such as Ilbe (일베) and Megalia has further driven the gender divide, and has placed much of public attention on either ends of the extreme views of gender relations. Even within spaces and groups that are removed from such extremes, the feminist sentiment is met with strong disavowal. When I brought up the film to a friend, a woman living in Seoul as a mother and a teacher, she recalled getting strong reactions from her acquaintances for opening up about her feminist views: “I will say I’m a feminist amongst adults and they will draw back and wave their hands, like literally recoil.” The polar extremes that are given a lot of media coverage due to their controversy have largely obscured the true project of equality that lies within feminism.
Those who dismiss the incidents portrayed in the film, saying they are “dramatized” and “unrealistic,” are unable to (or for some, refuse to) understand the gravity of these lived experiences — how they fundamentally fragment our sense of being and belonging. Kim Ji-Young captures this very gravity, specifically through Ji-Young’s dissociative identity disorder as a coping mechanism for her suffocating reality. Her depression literally fragments her sense of identity, causing her to assume the persona of others and speak as them without her having a slight recollection of doing so. However, the film uses the term “possessed” and never really defines Ji-Young’s illness, perhaps a choice that works against the aim to raise awareness around issues of mental health.
Covering a range of themes and issues from systemic misogyny in the corporate and domestic spheres to attitude towards mental illnesses, marriage, and parenting, the film highlights the systemic structures that facilitate these particular dynamics of imbalanced power. However, it was also criticized for trying to generalize the female experience and portray Ji-Young’s story as a kind of all-encompassing truth. The use of the very common name Kim Ji-Young was a deliberate choice to indicate that the protagonist symbolizes the typical Korean woman. Made three years after the original novel was published, the movie is generally regarded to be less dramatized (and thus more digestible) than the book, and makes certain adjustments such as the chronology and the point of view to better fit the visual medium. Among literary and film critics, a common critique is that the heavy focus on its feminist message dilutes the plot, and that it makes certain generalizations that are too broad or paint the male population in an unrealistically negative light.
Despite this, the degree of responses it garnered from women, especially young women in their 20s and 30s who made up the majority of the film’s viewers, attest to the fact that there certainly is truth to be found within this story. Many related to the plight of Ji-Young, commenting on how refreshing it was to see these experiences acknowledged and portrayed on screen. Some also voiced that the unrealistically supportive husband character was still made to look like the hero of the story. Most, if not all, women around me who have seen the film testify that it made them cry, especially during the scene when Ji-Young assumes the identity of her grandmother and speaks to her mother. The film’s exploration of the particularly gut-wrenching nature of a mother-daughter relationship resonated with mothers and daughters all over Korea.
I, too, was deeply moved by this film. The experiences portrayed on screen had such palpable resemblances to the experience I had growing up in Korea. The conservative remarks from older members of the family about how sons are preferred over daughters is something I’ve heard all my childhood. The scene where Ji-Young is sexually harassed on the bus and is scared for her life as her perpetrator follows her off the bus, is a scenario I’ve seen and been told of too many times to count. In it, I saw my own experiences of consciously standing against the wall on public transport, and immediately calling my mom as I got off the station to walk home at night. The film’s tender portrayal of a mother who must watch her daughter go through the same pain as she did broke my heart, both for its level of sincerity and authenticity. When the film ended, all I could do as I wiped off the tears streaming down my cheeks was to text my mom, to let her know how grateful I was for the sacrifices she has made as a woman and as a mother for me.
After Ji-Young faces her condition and begins to seek help, she has a phone call with her mother. They talk of the day she was born, how cherry blossom petals fell like heavy snow as she entered the world. Ji-Young says, “I must take after you so much mom, the day Ah-Young was born, there was snowfall too. I got a beautiful daughter.” Outside the window, there is yet another snowfall as if to say that this moment, as Ji-Young takes the first few steps toward healing, symbolizes her rebirth. Perhaps the value of this film lies not in its perfect execution or grand stylistic choices, but in the ripple it caused in Korean society and the much needed spotlight it shed on the daily manifestations of systemic gender inequality. Kim Ji-Young hasn’t had the smoothest journey reaching its audience. But it was a necessary film, a film I’m grateful to have witnessed make history.
Kathy Park is a student studying English and Cinema Studies at New York University. Her hobbies include writing short stories, reading about movies and TV shows, and auteur marathons. You can find her on instagram and letterboxd @kathyypark.