I could not help but respond to a number of seemingly mundane but undeniably strong moments in South Korean film “Kim Ji-young: Born 1982”, which has been one of the most anticipated movies of this year in South Korea thanks to the considerable popularity of the novel of the same name it is based on. As phlegmatically observing its mentally unstable heroine’s ordinary present and past, the movie makes a number of sharp points on the systemic sexism and misogyny prevalent in the South Korean society, and it will surely give you something to muse and reflect on, regardless of whether you are a female or male audience.
When we meet Kim Ji-young (Jung Yu-mi) at the beginning of the film, everything looks fine and good in her cozy and comfortable middle-class family life with her husband Dea-hyeon (Gong Yoo) and their 2-year-old daughter. The Lunar New Year holiday season is about to begin, and Dae-hyeon is concerned a bit about how difficult it will be as usual for them to go from Seoul to his hometown for visiting his parents, but Ji-young does not seem to mind that at all, and we subsequently see them staying in his parents’ residence.
However, we come to sense a sort of subtle tension under the surface as noticing how much Ji-young is expected to do along with her mother-in-law while her husband and father-in-law are just watching TV in the living room. For example, she and her mother-in-law have to do prepare lots of food for the memorial service for ancestors, and then she has to work more later when several family members come. The movie lets us feel the growing exasperation and frustration inside her while also emphasizing how casually she is overlooked by other family members, and I particularly like a brief shot in which the camera mainly focuses on them but also indirectly presents her meek presence in the background.
And that point is where something quite odd happens. Ji-young suddenly talks and behaves as if she were her mother, and everyone including her husband is certainly caught off guard by this unexpected behavior of hers. For avoiding more embarrassment, Dae-hyeon quickly leaves along with her and their daughter, and she eventually comes to her normal state, but she does not remember anything about her weird incident. Quite perplexed by whatever is happening inside her mind, Dae-hyeon goes to a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist recommends that Ji-young should come for interview and evaluation, but Ji-young is not particularly willing to do that because 1) she does not feel so bad and 2) her husband is reluctant to reveal to her how problematic her state of mind is.
Via a number of flashback scenes, the movie gradually shows us how much she has been unhappy and frustrated throughout her whole life due to the social bias and discrimination based on the patriarchal structure of the South Korean society. During her childhood years, she and her older sister were usually put aside for their little brother just because he is the only son of their parents, and her mother was not so pleased about that because she gave up her dream just for supporting her several brothers as demanded by her parents. When it seemed Ji-young did not get employed soon after her college graduation, her father did not say anything nice to her, and he only told her that she had to get married as soon as possible, just because that is what is expected from her and many other women around her age.
And we also observe what Ji-young has endured outside since she entered adolescence. There is a frightening scene where young Ji-young is menaced by some vicious boy around her age and then fortunately saved from this unpleasant situation thanks to the kindness of a stranger, and you may be more infuriated when her father, who belatedly comes to rescue, chides her for looking inappropriate to boys. During a flashback scene showing when she worked in some company before her marriage, we see how much she and other female employees struggled in their male-dominant workplace, and we later get a small gut-wrenching moment when Ji-young’s colleagues happen to learn of something hidden somewhere inside their bathroom.
In case of her motherhood years, it only adds more frustration and exasperation to Ji-young’s life. Although she loves her daughter, she agreed to have her just because of the pressure from her parents-in-law, and her husband has not been that much of help to her during last two years. While he certainly becomes more concerned about Ji-young after she becomes quite troubled, he does not really know how to deal with her problem, and that is eventually followed by an ironically pathetic moment when he cannot help but swept by his own feelings in front of his wife, who remains calm and quiet in contrast.
Although the movie is less gloomy and edgy than the novel in comparison, it mostly stays true to the social gender issues and messages of the novel, and director Kim Do-young, who also participated in the adaptation of the novel, did a competent job of delivering them while also deftly handling her story and characters. While Ji-young in the novel is more or less than a plain case study, her counterpart in the film is presented as an engaging human character imbued with flesh, blood, and personality, and Jung Yu-mi, who effortlessly stole the show in “Psychokinesis” (2018), is simply terrific as ably conveying to us the churning feelings and thoughts behind her character’s docile façade.
In case of several notable supporting performers surrounding Jung, they dutifully occupy each own spot while never overshadowing her. While Gong Yoo carries well his thankless role, it should be mentioned that several female supporting performers in the film including Gong Min-jung and Park Sung-yeon are as wonderful as Jung, and the special mention goes to Kim Mi-kyung, who has a poignant melodramatic scene with Jung at one point later in the film.
On the whole, “Kim Ji-young: Born 1982” is as good as expected, and it definitely deserves to be mentioned along with a bunch of notable South Korean female movies of this year, which range from a sublime adolescence drama like “House of Hummingbird” (2019) to a plucky crowd-pleasing comedy like “Miss & Mrs. Cop” (2019). As somebody said before, the future of South Korean cinema indeed lies on women, and I hope this trend will continue during next several years at least.