New films high­light the heavy price S. Korean stu­dents pay for suc­cess

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY JUNG HA- WON

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.

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