KIM JI-YOUNG, born in 1982, had high hopes of excelling at her job in an advertising company. She was young, curious, and above all, ambitious—but such desires were immediately dissolved in the face of reality. Kim, like many other women in South Korea, got married, and eventually had to leave her job due to heavy household chores and child nursing. She was stuck in a vicious cycle of labor, and felt her identity fade away little by little. Her enthusiastic and creative self with visions of her career ceased to exist; she was now just one of the many mothers and wives in postmodern Korean society, chained to her home and nothing more.
Why the controversy?
A film adaptation of Cho Nam-joo’s 2016 novel of the same title, the 2019 film Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, depicts the various hardships of a stay-at-home mother. Kim Ji-young, the protagonist, is a mother in her thirties. Like most women in the film and in the reality of South Korea today, Kim had to give up on her career in order to devote her time and energy to her child and household chores. Her day is but a static repertoire: she cleans the house, cooks, and takes care of her toddler—no breaks, no time for herself. Kim ultimately suffers from depression and begins to display multiple personas, and her husband, Dae-hyeon, begins to notice these strange events. The film hints that her behavior is a product of Korean society’s adherence to gender roles and dense pressure on women. Throughout this narrative, the film Kim Ji-young portrays layered dynamics of sexism—both explicit and implicit—in our everyday lives.
Like all movie adaptations, the 2019 Kim Ji-young is not an identical reenactment of the novel. Having read and watched both works, the film appeared to me as an upgrade to Cho’s original work. To begin with, the film includes an appropriate addition of various issues Korean women face on a daily basis. The film incorporates scenes where the female characters suffer from anxiety after discovering hidden cameras in bathrooms, as well as the societal challenges of Korean women in accomplishing their careers, as many of the female characters express discontent in feeling that they are second to their male colleagues. Minor scenes also illustrated attempts of sexual assault, and its consequential victim-blaming behaviors.
The original novel consists of statistics and graphs of sexism in Korea, and many netizens claimed that the information presented “lacked credibility*.” The film, however, was successful in creating a narrative that is easy to understand and, more importantly, easy to relate to. The prioritization of men in the family dynamic, the anxiety of hidden cameras in bathrooms, the sexually objectifying language against women, and mothers being called mom-choongs** are nothing new. These situations were woven into the narrative to make them more relatable to a broader audience. Many of us have been exposed to sexism growing up, and Kim Ji-young is outstanding in displaying these relatable elements to invoke a reality check within our blinded society.
Yet the public response revealed otherwise. The female audience rated the film with an average of a solid 9.5 out of 10, whereas the average of male viewers is a 1.7***. The drastic difference is startling: the film is about the common hardships of Korean women, yet men are embittered. As the numbers suggest, many of the critics appeared to be male. This is bizarre, because a great number of women confessed to have found the themes presented in the film relatable, yet men are still questioning the validity of women’s responses. How can one possibly call the troubles their sisters, wives, and mothers constantly face an exaggeration? Who are they to set such labels?
Conversations in Kim Ji-young, Born 1982
Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 is an exemplary nod to sociolinguistics****, with its dialogue revealing subtle and apparent behaviors and perspectives rising from sexist thought. Both male and female characters express discriminatory language, with lines such as “you should have been born as a man instead.” Such was delivered by a male business executive in a retrospective scene showing Ji-young’s past working days. The statement was directed at a female colleague, Team Head Kim, after she confronted him for claiming that “mothers should stick to their children, instead of work.” The executive further commented that Kim was able to survive in the business realm because of her audacity, hence why she “should have been born as a man.”
Through similar misogynistic lines, the film moreover criticizes the act of gender segregation instead of the respective characters’ genders. Contrary to critiques that called the film a “work of misandry*****,” the film reveals that we are to condemn the act of sexism itself, shifting our society’s focus from the gender identity of the characters to the sexist actions that were carried out. The film was therefore exceptional in keeping a neutral, objective filter in the scenes of common sexism against women. Dae-hyeon, for instance, the most paramount male subject in the film, is portrayed as an understanding and caring parent and husband. On the other hand, both Kim Ji-young’s aunt and mother-in-law are portrayed as antagonists, causing the main character much distress by starting many of their lines with “a woman should.” Antagonization and criticism were echoed amid the female characters and their dialogue, and not just solely by the males. In Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, misandry was dead absent.
The film did a remarkable job in delving into the dynamics of dialogue, carefully crafting each word in the script, as one word can alter and transform the full connotation of a line. For instance, Ji-young tells her ex-colleague that Dae-hyeon is willing to help her with household chores. However, here we must notice that men do not “help” women in house chores, as such terms imply predetermined gender roles. The film purposefully embedded this word in the lines of both male and female characters, showing how often we undermine these sexist claims. We are presented with a reality check when Ji-young’s colleague cautions that men do not “help,” but rather, they should work alongside women in carrying out the responsibilities of the home.
By the end of the film, the lines addressed by Kim Ji-young give the impression that they are directed at us, the audience, and more so, to those who called the film a work of bias and reverse sexism. By the final scenes of the film, Kim Ji-young yells in frustration towards people who called her a mom-choong behind her back: “Do you know me? Do you know what I go through? Why am I a mom-choong...a parasite? Why don’t you just keep those comments to yourself?” Her cries drifted across the IMAX screen and travelled across the audience in the theatre. It was a sentiment directed at all of us.
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As a Korean woman myself, the film is both disheartening and empowering. I was reminded of my mother from the very beginning of the film to the end, as these were hardships she faced as a young woman. I have heard her compare herself to a bird in a cage many times, and such images were visualized in scenes where Kim Ji-young was trapped in her house. She once confesses to her therapist, “It is as if there are walls around me. I cannot find an exit, and I am starting to think that there was no exit in the first place.” So many of us are trying to find this exit, to escape the cage of inequality and prejudice: Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 is a sign we must not ignore.
**Mom-choong: Korean slang referring to irresponsible mothers who let their children cause trouble, especially in public settings
****Sociolinguistics: The study of the effect of society on language, and vice versa
*****Democratic Party Official Webpage