KIM JI-YOUNG: BORN 1982 (2019)
Words by Grace Han
Shining a light on contemporary feminism in Korea, this adaptation of Cho Nam-joo’s bestseller follows a mother juggling work, family and entrenched gender discrimination
In an age of hidden bathroom cameras, cybersex trafficking, and an ever-present income gap between men and women, “feminism” has become a fraught term in South Korea. Some say that the extreme misogyny is a reaction to misandry. Others claim women’s rights are a copout to Korea’s extremely competitive society. Still others point to Korea’s extremely low birth rates, a fact often correlated with its highly-educated female workforce. In any case, the fight for gender equality has never been more present in the Korean peninsula.
Then enter Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Cho Nam-joo’s feminist fiction broke records in 2016, as the second Korean language novel to sell over a million copies. Now, Kim Do-young takes on the mantle to adapt the book into film. For the first time in her own decades-long career, the seasoned actress helms the film as a director.
Here her connections are evident in the film’s star-studded cast. In this social drama, Jung Yu-mi plays the eponymous Kim Ji-young. At first glance, Kim Ji-young has everything a millennial could ask for – a healthy baby, a nice apartment, and Gong Yoo as a husband, to boot. There’s only two problems, however. First, in high-stress moments, she lapses into trances where ancestors speak through her. Moreover, these instances happen unbeknownst to her – though they are visible to everyone around her.
As the rest of her extended family rushes to her aid then, Kim Ji-young stumbles around trying to resolve her undiagnosed depression. In her eyes, the world shuts her down at every turn for being a daughter, a mother, a wife – or really, just being a woman.
For a film that heavily relies upon societal stereotypes, Kim Do-young does a phenomenal job of fleshing out her characters. Kim Ji-young is not simply a crazy housewife – she’s understandably stressed after having a child. Likewise, her husband is not oppressive per se, he simply responds out of ignorance. Patriarchal expectations, the film suggests, are not borne out of ill will as they are out of trained neglect. The suppression of women is not so much individual malice as it is a societal disease.
This character study is compelling, and Jung Yu-mi’s restrained interpretations even more so. Kim Do-young is still a novice behind the camera, however. The film’s narrative drive overlooks the power of tighter camerawork and confined space, much of which would have helped convey Kim Ji-young’s anxiety. The scripted conversations are likewise shabby. They start and stop suddenly, and their sudden ends read more as choppy than they do mysterious. Poor communication between characters comes across as poor writing.
Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 does, however, accurately illustrate the paradox of Korean womanhood: to bear too much and too little expectation at once at home and at work respectively. This portrait of everyday life lays bare the invisible pressures Korean women face today – until, like Kim Ji-young, they crack.