Back in March, when Switzerland went into lockdown, I found myself seeking comfort in my old passions. One of them being reading novels: when I was in elementary school my ambition used to drive me to read at least three hefty books a week. Now that I’m in my twenties and studying literature, I find it hard to read for pleasure as much as I used to. With the arrival of a global pandemic, though, I tried to distract myself as much as possible by diving into fictional stories. “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982”, written by Cho Nam-ju, was a lucky find. I had been waiting for a couple years for a translated version and it had finally arrived in Switzerland with impeccable timing. What I enjoyed the most about delving into this slice of Korean society was the rage with which it left me once I turned the last page.
For those unfamiliar with the novel, “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982” is a widely popular Korean feminist book. It tackles the inequality Korean women face since birth and it follows protagonist Kim Ji-young’s evolution from schoolgirl, to university student, to wife and eventually to mother. This novel successfully portrays the pillar and vital role women play in the lives of men and how little they get rewarded for it. Each age range of women faces different issues. Young girls have to deal with being loved and cared for less than their male siblings, not being able to become class president despite having the highest grades, being followed on their way home after school, and getting scolded when they take the courage to denounce sexual harassment.
As an adult, Ji-young has to baby her own husband and give up the job she loves because of the constant pressure to have children and fulfill what everyone around her believes to be her duties as a woman. All these experiences pile up and lead to her breaking point: Ji-young starts impersonating all the women she has met in her life and does not realize it. This is the most poignant theme of the novel: the collectiveness of Korean women’s experiences that the protagonist embodies. Eventually, the person who should lead her out her breakdown, her psychologist, ends up being another living stereotype of male pretentiousness. The book ends there – there is no solution for Ji-young’s problems, as there aren’t in real life.
During my period of self-isolation, the film adaptation of this novel was available only in Asia and practically impossible to find online. However, when I finally found a copy of Kim Do-young’s adaptation, I immediately started playing it. I was in for two hours of anger and disappointment.
The most noticeable drawback of the film is its cast. Though it was of enormous help for its revenue to have big names star in the film, they contributed to the collective redeeming arc that was given to all male characters. For example, Gong Yoo, one of Korea’s most popular and well-paid actors (Train to Busan, The Lonely and Great God – Goblin) plays Dae-hyun, Ji-young’s (Jung Yoo-mi) husband. In the novel, Dae-hyun is not much help when it comes to his wife’s recovery as he only considers going on paternal leave to give Ji-young the chance to work, like she so desperately wants to. Both in the film and in the book, he doesn’t go through with this idea right away because his mother sees Ji-young’s mental health as an impediment to her working life. In the film though, the viewer discovers at the end that Ji-young plans to and succeeds in going back to work once she feels better, decision she makes after being pushed to seek help by her husband and having to promise she will visit her therapist frequently. What Dae-hyun ends up doing in the book is just encouraging his wife to see a psychologist, and that is the end of his role in her recovery – she stays a stay-at-home mother despite wanting to resume working.
Since Gong Yoo was chosen for the husband’s role though, one can imagine the main focus was to portray him as a central figure and not just one more brick in the wall of Ji-young’s experiences with misogyny. Seeing that the story is narrated by Ji-young’s psychologist – as the reader discovers at the very end – not much is shown from his point of view. Despite this, Gong appears in plenty of scenes (written specifically for the film) in which Dae-hyun is shown trying to make up for the fact that he too benefits from a society that is tailored to men. For example, during a smoke break at work, he snaps at one of his coworkers for dropping misogynistic comments and throws his coffee at him. And it isn’t the only instance he takes action: during another smoke break, he shows interest in taking a paternity leave and is the only one among his friends to consider it a positive system. It is these kinds of scenes that seem to be invalidating Ji-young’s condition, because her husband is being shown as being actively anti-misogynist, instead of passively sexist as in the novel. In the latter, when Ji-young is bound to quit her job to look after their daughter, Dae-hyun proposes to help her out with chores, not realizing it sounds like he’s proposing to do charity work and not partaking in normal household duties a husband should be doing in the first place. When one compares this scene with Dae-hyun’s portrayal in the film adaptation, it is evident the rhetoric used in the latter is one that makes the viewer think “oh well, at least she doesn’t have it that bad”.
None of the above scenes made me despise his character, however, at the very end of the film when a sobbing Dae-hyun grabs Ji-young’s hand and, in essence, apologizes for being a man. It is a moment in which he admits he had no idea what his wife was going through and cries while asking for her forgiveness. Doing that solves nothing in the struggle for equality. The viewer is supposed to pity him and see that he truly wants to help his wife, though he’s unable to. For those who have read the book though, this moment seems more like showcasing a male struggle that does not exist and putting it on the same level as the very real societal problems Korean women face every day.
I have to say I could have predicted how the story would have been hijacked from being focused on Ji-young’s life and condition to becoming more couple-oriented in the film. Its poster displays Ji-young and Dae-hyun together – and he’s looking lovingly at her. At first glance, it does seem like the poster for a romantic movie – nothing about it points to any other plotline of the film centering Ji-young except for the one revolving on her marriage. On top of that, the slogan that appears in the trailer translates to “The story of you and I”, which can be interpreted in two ways: firstly, as Ji-young’s story and of the women around her and secondly, as the story of her relationship with Dae-hyun. These are surface aspects I did not enjoy about the way the film was promoted, but when one scratches beneath them and adds them to the distorted plotline I mentioned above, one can see how the story was softened to appeal to a wider public, at the expense of the message of the book.
Though this literary adaptation gains a point for having been directed by a woman, it was indeed a wasted opportunity at an honest representation of the novel. I do recognize that Dae-hyun was written the way he was to perhaps nod to the respect that should be given to stay-at-home mothers and the recognition of their struggles. Still, Ji-young’s motherly role is only one of the many she embodies, and her husband doesn’t just have an impact on that aspect of her life. In the film, he knows he’s unhelpful despite his willingness to improve his wife’s condition, in the novel he’s just unaware of anything that has been going on in her head. To highlight his flaws would have been to highlight the core of a widespread societal issue.
Header image courtesy of Spring Wind Film Company