Review: Kim Ji-young, Born 1982

Though I haven’t read Cho Nam-joo’s international bestseller, Kim Do-young’s film adaptation of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 apparently differs in several significant ways. For one thing, much of the novel is presented as a case study of a patient, and the psychiatrist writing the study and treating the patient is a man. Here, the therapist is a woman, and she doesn’t figure that much into the story, at least in terms of screen time. I’m assuming that the director, who is a woman, decided that the audience would be more comfortable with a woman treating another woman, since the psychological problem at hand springs from a sense of desperation born of the patient’s status as a woman in Korean society. Kim Ji-young (Jung Yu-mi) is a full-time mother/homemaker when she is introduced in the movie, standing in a park with her 2-year-old daughter eavesdropping on a conversation among a group of office workers on their lunch break complaining about “roaches,” a derisive term for stay-at-home moms who have lots of free time and disposable money to lay around. It sets Ji-young’s neuroses off, since she did have a full-time job and career goals but circumstances eventually conspired to place her in her current situation, which is causing her confusion and frustration. 

Ji-young’s husband, Dae-hyon (Gong Yoo), is not a sexist creep. He’s fully supportive of his wife and despairs that he may not be doing enough to help her around the house and raise their child. But it’s difficult for him to break out of his self-image as a breadwinner and head-of-household, since it’s one that was constantly instilled in him growing up. He is the one who first notices that Ji-young occasionally falls into dissociative episodes where she suddenly becomes someone else (usually from her past), and he tries to get her to see a therapist. At one point he breaks down in front of her, feeling guilty that he may have been the cause of his wife’s problems, and says he will do more to “help” her. She looks at him and asks why he thinks he needs to “help” her? This is his home, too. That toddler is his daughter, too. They are in this together.

Ji-young’s problem is easy to diagnose. She belonged to the first generation of South Korean women who entered university and later the work force ostensibly on an equal footing with men. Unfortunately, the social environment didn’t keep up with this progressive ideal. The story contrasts Ji-young’s situation with that of her mother (Kim Me-kyung), who gave up her own dream of becoming a school teacher because she had to work full-time as a teenager in order to make money to help her two older brothers go to college. When Ji-young gets a job with a prestigious ad agency after graduating, her mother cheers the loudest. But when Ji-young marries she becomes the daughter-in-law to a woman with more conventional views of family like. Initially, Ji-young and Dae-hyon decide not to have children, but pressure from their parents eventually turns that around, and once the baby is born Ji-young finds that the pressure to conform only gets stronger. She’s the victim of countless micro-aggressions from everyone around her to put her child above her career, and after trying to balance the two she quits her job.

But while the story hits all the proper notes (sexual harassment, pay gap, male defensiveness) with great care and thoughtfulness, the movie itself never fully commits to the darkness in Ji-young’s soul, which, again, seems to have been one of the reasons for the novel being such a powerful indictment of Korean (and, by extension, world) society. The scenes are like a parade of passive-aggressive demonstrations occasionally punctuated by rays of sunshine so as not to get too bleak and hopeless. And I wonder if Ji-young’s eventual turn to writing herself, first as a form of self-therapy and then as a financial gambit, was in the novel. From what I understand, Cho wrote the book in a period of several weeks out of a sense of frustration, so it makes a certain amount of sense, but as it’s presented it seems more like a convenient way to tie up loose plot ends. 

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Marunouchi Piccadilly (050-6875-0075), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).

Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Lotte Entertainment

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