Written by Nanda Illahi
We’ve probably all heard of one of the best movies in 2019, Parasite, directed by Bong Joon Ho, which just won the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture in the Foreign Language category and several awards at the 2020 Academy Awards. Well, that’s not the only South Korean movie that criticized the problem of society in 2019. Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 (2019) is a movie about women and their struggles with marriage, as well as the structural gender inequality that lies along the walls of society.
The movie begins immediately with the scene of Kim Ji-young, played by Jung Yu-mi, having to help her mother-in-law prepare a variety of foods for the family while her husband Jung Dae-hyun, played by Gong Yoo, feeling bad for his wife, tries to help with the dishes. Immediately, Ji-young tries to stop Dae-hyun because she realized that his mother wouldn’t approve of him helping. Dae-hyun’s mother, then, lets out a snarky comment in response, “my daughter-in-law has a really good husband.” Ji-young defends herself by saying that she does all the chores at home, but that doesn’t seem to change her mother-in-law’s stance.
From this scene alone we can get a sense of how Kim Ji-young is treated as a wife and daughter-in-law. Although her husband is willing to help, men doing house chores is still taboo in South Korean society, and that is why the mother-in-law disapproves of her son doing the dishes. Additionally, having a husband who cares for his wife by trying to help is considered lucky, which further emphasizes how this is not a common occurrence.
The movie doesn’t necessarily antagonize the husbands, the fathers, or the mothers-in-law, rather it criticizes the society as a whole for engendering a culture in which women are punished for getting married and having children, or worse for being a woman overall. The film, based on the book of the same name, illustrates the gender discrimination faced by Kim Ji-young from when she was a child until she’s in her 30s already married. Ji-young as a woman isn’t allowed to be loud, isn’t encouraged to work, and isn’t promoted at the workplace. She, later, could not go back to work because nobody could help her take care of her daughter, and she’s facing psychological problems due to the exhaustive life of a stay-at-home mom.
What Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 helps us realize is that if the system is broken, individuals alone cannot change society. Despite Ji-young’s husband ends up being rather supportive of her career for the sake of her mental health, her mother-in-law is still opposed to the idea. Dae-hyun proposes that he stays at home so that Ji-young can work full-time. However, as women are paid less than men, Ji-young’s salary alone will not be able to support her family’s spending if her husband has to take leave to take care of their daughter. This is precisely why women in South Korea, and many other places around the world, are either discouraged to work or reluctant to get married. Once women work, it will be difficult for them to move up the corporate ladder without sacrificing their family, leading to them choosing not to get married. The problem is that, for women, there’s a trade-off between working and caregiving, which doesn’t necessarily exist for men.
In addition to Kim Ji-young’s struggles, the movie also portrays an incident, far too familiar, for women living in South Korea. In one of the scenes, Ji-young’s former colleagues find a hidden camera in their office bathroom, which apparently is not an unusual finding in South Korea. In 2018, parallel with the rise of the #MeToo movement in South Korea, a lot of women were speaking and fighting back against spy cameras placed in public bathrooms. Using their catchphrase, “my life is not your porn,” around 70,000 women marched down the streets in Seoul to raise awareness about this crime.
The movie is powerful because it delivers messages that resonate with women today. Professor Lee Na-young told the BBC in 2019 that “The book is not about someone special or a particularly miserable woman, but it’s about any woman.” In spite of its rapid economic development, South Korea is still behind on the matter of gender equality, as evident in the movie. This is also evident in how the public responded to the movie.
A lot of people criticized the movie for exaggerating the reality of gender discrimination and even went as far as asking the President to ban the movie from showing in theatres. Female celebrities, and the actress portraying Kim Ji-young herself, were judged and condemned for reading the book or supporting the movie. Again, the South Korean public’s reaction to the movie is aligned with what is shown in the movie. Obviously, there are people who empathize with the difficulties that women have to face in their life simply because they were born as women. Yet, there are also a lot of societal judgments, fixating on the idea that women have to fit into a particular role, and that women are objects of men, families, the society.
Regardless, Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 remains one of the most powerful feminist movies released in 2019, especially for South Korean women in light of recent incidents and the uprising of the #MeToo movement. For the general audience who missed out on catching the movie in cinemas, the book is available in multiple different languages for you to read, absorb, and analyze.
The movie poster is from Google and the videos linked belong to their respective owners.