New films highlight the heavy price S. Korean students pay for success
The emotional and physical trauma inflicted by overzealous parenting and South Korea’s cut-throat education system form the focus of two movies receiving their world premieres at this year’s Busan International Film Festival (BIFF).
The documentary “Reach for the SKY” and the feature film “4th Place” both tackle sensitive issues that are only too familiar to many South Koreans.
Co-directed by Choi Woo-young and Belgium’s Steven Dhoedt, “Reach for the SKY” follows three teenagers and a teacher through the individual and collective rollercoaster that is the country’s annual college entrance test.
Success in the exam — to which young South Koreans devote most of their teenage years — means a place in one of the elite universities seen as key to future careers and marriage prospects.
The film’s title is an acronym referring to the three most-coveted schools — Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei universities (SKY) — to which only 1 percent of high school graduates gain admission.
Choi said the movie tried to capture the “dark side” of an education system that is often held up by other countries as a model of rigorous meritocracy.
The pressure to score well has been blamed for teenage depression and suicide rates that are among the highest in the world.
“Some people outside South Korea praise the achievement of our education system and the excellent math and science scores of our youngsters,” Choi told AFP.
“But I wanted to show this reality in which less than 1 percent of teenagers can be winners and the rest call themselves miserable losers,” he said.
Two of the students in the documentary are “repeaters” — studying for the exam a second time at special cram schools run with nearmilitary efficiency and discipline in the hope of improving their score.
Ubiquitous surveillance cameras monitor the students 24 hours a day, most of which are taken up with classes punctuated by meditation sessions where teachers intone “Your brain will improve ... You can focus...”
South Korea’s private education market is worth a staggering US$27 billion, with the likes of “rock star” English teacher Kim Ki-hoon at the top of the food chain.
The film shows Kim taking the stage at a giant sports stadium packed with thousands of teenagers and their parents who listen with studied attention to his tips on how to score well in the college exam.
A teacher, or more precisely a swim coach, is also a pivotal character in “4th Place” — the tale of a young swimmer, Jun-ho, and his fanatically competitive and overbearing mother.
Frustrated with Jun-ho’s repeated failure to secure a podium finish, his mother hires a coach known for his uncompromising physical approach to forcing the best out of his charges.
Jun-ho’s performance improves and his mother’s pride is such that she turns a blind eye to the bruises on his body that testify to the coach’s brutal methods.
When her husband confronts her with the reality, she tearfully protests: “I’m more scared of him ending up in fourth again than getting beaten.”
While corporal punishment has largely been banished from South Korean classrooms, it is still tolerated on the sports training ground where aggressive discipline has been cited as one reason for South Korea punching above its weight in international sporting events like the Olympic Games.
Director Jung Ji-woo interviewed more than 100 young athletes, their mothers and coaches before making the film and said the reality was “a lot worse” than the movie.
“Many mothers knew their children were being beaten,” Jung told AFP.
“For them, anything is permissible as long as their children reach the top of the game as fast as possible,” he said.
The film suggests the violence is cyclical, with the increasingly traumatized Jun-ho passing on his coach’s beatings to his own younger brother.
For Jung, “4th Place” — commissioned by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea — is a metaphor for the price South Korean society as a whole has had to pay for the country’s extraordinarily rapid development from a war-torn backwater to Asia’s fourth largest economy.
“In our society, the end has justified the means in everything, and that mentality is deeply ingrained in the public psyche,” Jung said.
“Such a relentless pursuit of achievement at all costs might have helped our society to develop so quickly ... but now it’s time to move on to the next, more civilized stage,” he added.
An undated handout photo released by the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) on Wednesday, Sept. 30 shows an image from the South Korean documentary “Reach for the SKY.” The emotional and physical trauma inflicted by overzealous parenting and South Korea’s cut-throat education system form the focus of two movies receiving their world premieres at this year’s BIFF.