Each chapter of protagonist Kim Jiyoung’s memory feels sharply familiar
Kim Jiyoung’s first obstacle at school was the ‘pranks of the boy desk-mate’, which many schoolgirls experienced. The pranks felt more like harassment or violence. But there was nothing she could do about it besides running crying to her mother and sister Eunyoung. They were not of much help. Eunyoung thought the boys were immature. She asked Jiyoung to just ignore them. The mother chided Jiyoung for crying and complaining over a classmate ‘just messing around because he wanted to play.’
It is both easy and difficult to relate the story of Jiyoung, the protagonist of Cho Nam Joo’s 2016 novel Kim Ji Young, Born 1982, which was translated into English in 2018, and is widely acknowledged as one of the most important works from South Korea. It is easy as women have similar experiences universally and difficult because the familiarity is too painful. Jiyoung lives as a daughter, sister, student, friend, girlfriend, employee, wife, and mother. Each chapter of her memory feels sharply familiar. It does not matter whether one is a wife, mother, sister, or employee. We all know women have to play the hand they are dealt.
Jiyoung is told her brother needs a room of his own, while she and her sister can share theirs. She makes her team coffee, remembering each member’s preferences, ordering their takeaways, clearing their dishes, and is passed over when it is time for promotions. She is blamed by her father for being harassed while out at night and is asked to ‘…just stay out of trouble and get married.’ She is told by her male colleague that being pregnant grants her the luxury of being late to work and yet continuing to enjoy the same pay – ‘a terrible affront to devoted, hardworking men such as him, and a blow to the company’s revenue!’
She has to take a ‘break’ following her pregnancy to care for her child, while her husband rants about how life is about to change severely for him, too. He cannot hang out with his friends as much, and these things do matter, after all! She confronts her husband one day to ask what he means when he says he is contributing to the home by doing chores. Why is it a given for her, and why must he be celebrated for that?
The novel ends with the male narrator, Jiyoung’s counsellor, who has been on a journey of ‘critical thinking’ for a while, observing the departure of Lee Suyeon, a colleague at the same clinic. He is reflecting on what a wonderful employee Suyeon has been. She is pretty, witty, charming, cheerful, warm, dresses well, and even remembers how he takes his coffee. Certainly, a brownie point in Suyeon’s favour. She does sound quite like the dream employee. He, however, is regretful that she is temporarily leaving her job to be a mother – this, after several miscarriage scares – and is causing a bottom-line loss to the clinic. At end of all of Jiyoung’s experience and resulting ordeals, the most difficult task still befalls him, the counsellor: ‘I’ll have to make sure her replacement is unmarried.’
A film based on the book was released in 2019, starring Jung Yu-Mi and Gong Yoo, whose appeal is similar to that of Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan. While Jiyoung’s husband, Daehyun, features in the film, the central narrative is Jiyoung’s alone. In the book, Daehyun did not stand out for being remarkable in any way. He was perhaps remarkable in being ordinary and a faithful replica of a modern urban man – self-glorifying for doing the barest minimum. It was surprising therefore to see Gong Yoo cast as the husband in a story that Jiyoung owns and therefore, should have been Jung Yu-Mi’s alone. A name as big as Gong Yoo’s was overshadowing the story that Jung Yu-Mi and Jiyoung should have had sole credit for.
It seemed ironic that the point of the story would be defeated in its film adaptation, all by casting a star whose fame and reach would brand it ‘that Gong Yoo film’. This ‘Gong Yoo film’ was not like other ‘Gong Yoo films’, two of the most famous of which – Silenced and Train to Busan – incidentally also star Jung Yu-Mi. Producers need to ensure returns on their investments and what better way to do that than by involving the biggest name possible. Surely that would draw masses to the theatre. It was perhaps good that people at least watched the film, no matter the motivation. For her role as Jiyoung, Jung Yu-Mi was awarded best actress at the 2019 20th Women in Film Korea Festival. Gong Yoo did not have nominations for this film, but he perhaps drew a large part of the three million moviegoers the film gathered in 18 days.
As I attempted and failed to sort through my jumble of thoughts on the book and the film in early April, the leftover waves from International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrations and discourses in March were dying down. IWD 2022 was the usual flower-chocolate-pink gift box in some offices, and in some others it was leadership-innovation-empowerment. Women narrated experiences in public gatherings, corporations moved to implement token policies, promises were made of big change just around the corner, all supervised by a team of big, powerful, men.
While we were on our virtual IWD parades on March 8, South Korea was electing Yoon Suk-Yeol of the People Power Party as President on March 9. Yoon is no friend to women, and this is in addition to South Korea’s already pitiful performance as one of the worst in the Gender Pay Gap and Glass Ceiling Index among the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development grouping of 38 member countries. Nor is he a friend to the LGBTQIA+ community, not either to the small but growing section of men in South Korea who have begun to opt for paternity leave. While the Democrats have not been exemplary in bringing legal reforms and making gender the highest priority agenda, the right-wing party of President Yoon has been chest-thumpingly misogynistic and garnered support even from men’s rights movement groups!