Adi Iskandar considers the pros and cons of Kim Do-young’s film.
There is the issue of femininity, and then there is the talk about the issue of femininity. More to the point, representations of gender and sexuality remain a key discussion across many countries in the world. These discourses of power, perhaps particularly when situated within a more Asian context, are critical to discover how such a constellation of factors can cause a squeeze on its populace, eventually causing it to burst.
‘Kim Ji-young’ the movie is one such eruption, itself a container of cathartic moments. Directed by Kim Do-young, it tells the story of our eponymous protagonist (Jung Yu-mi), a stay-at-home mother with a young child. Having let go of her career, her husband Dae-hyun (Gong Yoo) is the family’s sole breadwinner. Yet what appears to be an idyllic lifestyle for many is peeled back to reveal a cornucopia of pressure points.
Some of that comes from society, primarily represented through her mother-in-law, Mi-sook (Kim Mi-kyung). Though I’m tempted to say there’s little actual malice from her, the systemic nature of the squeeze leads to a more systematic outcome, with very little space for Ji-young to determine her own course of action. It’s also frustrating how, at times, she appears to willingly subject herself to the grind, further masking the spiritual exhaustion that lies within.
Even when family is absent, society remains present; one key scene in which this manifests itself is a montage of her doing her housework. As she does so, there is a series of voiceovers, of people talking how such roles should be carried out by the female. Again, while this is a Korean film, it feels like those on the rest of the Asian continent (and beyond) could identify with this. I am reminded of Megan Wonowidjoyo’s ‘Woman at Home’, which focused on the objectification of the female in a domestic context. The same could apply to Ji-young here.
Away from the family, that pressure remains dialed high, with even sips of coffee in a park becoming a minefield of passing judgment from strangers. Well-meaning bystanders, such as the other mothers in her child’s playgroup and even her husband, are themselves a product of the same system that oppresses her personal ambitions, rendering their offers of help ineffective in the short- and long-term; coffee after class is indeed a good opportunity to build friendships, but it detracts from some ‘me time’ of her own.
Equally damaging in its own way is the economic apparatus, exemplified here through the office space. In scenes of the past, we see Ji-young’s professional background, formed on the foundations of admirable childhood dreams of being a writer (the film itself is an adaptation of a novel). Unfortunately, almost every step of the way is made heavier by the hierarchy; even her own father is (perhaps unwittingly) a part of this same problem.
That is not to say that there is little by way of sympathy for her. As mentioned before, her husband is portrayed more sympathetically. There is also a support network of friends (including her former boss, Kim [Park Sung-yeon]). Once they are made aware of her problems, there is a different tack taken. Nevertheless, they remain outliers within a very fixed power structure, one that is decidedly male in its outlook.
We can connect this to the rapid rise in Korea’s economic prowess, with the country transformed within a few generations to become a leading power in the world. The pace of such changes has not come without costs, and many of them are often inflicted on the women (whose earning powers lag far behind the males). Economic status is key, even in seeking help (I thought Ji-young’s initial rejection of psychological help on the basis of its high cost is particularly telling).
That note leads to Michel Foucault’s discussion of power. Ji-young’s issues with her own mental and emotional health echoes what Foucault speaks of hegemony, particularly its method of marginalising those deemed undesirable within its mainstream circles. Essentially, these ideas, especially in its relation to gender, are impositions subjugating knowledge more organic or native to the ‘powers’ that be, which, over time, replaces the organic former with an artificial latter.
In this context, this suppression could be described as a ‘squeeze’, a conflation and compression that leads to Ji-young’s truth bombs. In an early scene, after being subjected to continuous passive aggression, Ji-young admonishes her mother-in-law not as herself, but as her own mother, asking whether it’s fair that her daughter (Ji-young herself) has to go back to Busan (a long drive away from Seoul) for the major holiday seasons. In such a fashion, these truth bombs are useful in challenging the very fixed power structures Ji-young finds herself trapped in.
At the same time, it also makes the film’s solutions slightly problematic. Therapy is offered as a constructive way forward, but it also marginalises Ji-young in the same way Foucault described earlier, meaning that she is seen as ‘needing help’ because she is ‘sick’. While it is clear that such therapy is important, the fact remains that the film takes less of an aim at the bigger picture system that begets such categorisation to begin with.
Speaking of the film itself, for the most part, I am very much on board with the film’s style and substance. At times, however, it can feel a bit much. I recently read a book by Greta Thunberg, a compilation of numerous speeches delivered over the years. Her passion and anger, while useful and informed, is a little tiring when put together into a short little book. ‘Kim Ji-young’ also feels like it’s going 100% 100% of the time, which can be a little tiring at times.
Perhaps, however, that is more of a reflection of me, for this approach is useful in projecting the little domino effects faced by Korean women on a daily basis (see the scene about hidden cameras in the women’s toilets). Do-young’s previous directorial effort, ‘The Monologue’, tells a similar story of an actress placed in conflict between caring for her child and auditioning for a renowned director (perhaps a reflection of her own life). While effective, it does place ‘Kim Ji-young’ as a high wire act that some will find necessarily uncomfortable.
The fact that such discomfort can be keenly felt is a testament to the filmmaking team. Do-young employs a technique of constant and consistent flashbacks, a parallel effect that contextualises the text as we go along. This is also useful in placing us in her shoes, allowing for what is a disconcerting walk at times; we see how these violent eruptions of the subconscious result not only from her, but also from others, as she adopt different personalities in doing so.
There remains much on my plate to consider, with issues like victim blaming and family configurations not yet fully explored (on an upside, I like the interactions between Ji-young and her siblings). It suffices to say for now, then, that these are rivers flowing to the sea, a bigger body of water in which the systemic oppression of women’s thoughts and feelings render a more problematic outcome. If nothing else, ‘Kim Ji-young’ has done a good job at shedding light beneath the surface, illuminating the murky depths within.
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