A young woman questions the roles put upon her in Kim Do-young’s thoughtful drama.
“At times I’m happy. At other times I feel like I’m trapped.”
“Kim Ji-young’s life isn’t much different from the one I have lived,” says author Cho Nam-joo about the experiences faced by the titular character in her 2016 book. It’s no surprise, really. The experiences faced by our protagonist are nothing unusual, and not solely in Korea.
Jung Yu-mi is the titular Kim Ji-young, a former career woman in her 30s and currently – at least in the eyes of many in her family – happy housewife. However, Ji-young isn’t. Despite loving her husband and daughter, she’s dissatisfied with the traditional roles that have been forced upon her from never getting to rest at family gatherings to the assumed notions that she has to give up her career to look after her child. She looks for solace in her friends, most of which made a similar decision to her, as well as in her mother (Kim Mi-kyung) who dropped everything in her life to look after her three children. But with few options and lots of resistance from a world which wants nothing more than for her to stay in her place, Ji-young suffers a crisis of identity, and begins talking like her deceased grandmother.
That last bit might sound a bit wackier (or considerably darker) than a drama like this would suggest, but in Yoo Young-ah’s screenplay (and, of course, Cho Nam-joo’s original novel), Ji-young is literally speaking not just for herself. It’s here – at this early stage in the film – that we know that this isn’t going to be a problem that’s unique to just her. Realism is key here: Kim Ji-young: Born 1982’s biggest strength is in its sincerity and its portrayal of characters as real, three-dimensional individuals.
Having little knowledge of the novel going in, I was convinced that the source material was autobiographical. Most of the characters act like real humans, which is something shockingly lacking in a lot of cinema and the drama comes from a place of honesty and realism. Her husband Dae-hyun (Gong Yoo) is a progressive individual (relative to the standard set for men by the plot, that is) but even he has hangups about “out of the ordinary” situations, such as him taking paternity leave to help his wife with her own goals.
But it’s not entirely on him. He’s trying, but the system seems purpose-built to block Ji-young at every possibility. Dae-hyun’s coworkers talk about women, parenthood and the idea of paternity leave with the sort of dismissive attitude that isn’t jarring to anyone in the film because it’s the norm. It’s Ji-young and her sister who are easily the hardest workers but it’s the younger brother who gets all the perks, simply by nature of being his father’s son.
It never outright, explicitly says that the system is the problem but the film also makes it clear that these problems, so deeply entrenched in all of society, are going to take some work from everyone to be cleared up and thankfully there seems to be some optimism near the end. Ji-young’s father is definitely slow to learn, and it seems to take his wife breaking down in tears to pick up a thing or two but the emphasis isn’t on his generation anyway. It’s on his daughters and the lessons they’ll teach their own kids. Ji-young eventually does fight against the years of bullshit she’s been told and starts to do things her own way and even younger brother Ji-seok begins to show a better attitude.
Kim Ji-young: Born 1982 has a lot to say about the sexism that still permeates much of Korea’s day to day life, sometimes to the detriment of its own filmmaking. Occasionally, the pacing slows drastically, which is likely a case of a book adaptation not being adapted enough. It was one of my only gripes with The Handmaiden and is present here as well. This isn’t enough to detract from the great performances and simplistic, effective storytelling and you’ll only really start to feel it once the film’s wrapping up anyway, but it’s definitely a movie that could have benefitted from some slightly tighter editing. Nevertheless, Kim Ji-young: Born 1982 is able to capture genuine sentiment and works as a straightforward drama but even more as a piece of powerful feminist (semi-) fiction.
Verdict: Thanks to a solid story and its commitment to realism, Kim Ji-young: Born 1982 is able to deftly deliver a strong message while never feeling forced.
Overall entertainment: 7.5/10
Systematic sexism: 8/10
Coffee shop jerks: Possibly just a tad cartoony
Endings: About as many as Return of the King
Kim Ji-young: Born 1982 (2019)
Also known as: 82년생 김지영; (82 Nyeonsaeng Gim Jiyeong)
Director Kim Do-young
Writers: Yoo Young-ah (screenplay), Cho Nam-joo (novel)
Jung Yu-mi – Kim Ji-young
Gong Yoo – Jung Dae-hyun
Kim Mi-kyung – Mi-sook
Gong Min-jung – Eun-young
Park Sung-yeon – Eun-sil
Lee Bong-ryun – Hye-soo