‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’: The agonies of the everyday and a hope for the better
Kim Ji-young (Jung Yu-mi), Born 1982, lives at home with her two-year-old daughter. Having sacrificed her dream of being an author to work at a marketing agency, and then sacrificed her life at the agency to care for her daughter, Ji-young is suffocating under an avalanche of quiet disappointments and quotidian agonies. The pain she holds, however, is not hers alone, and director Kim Do-young adeptly maneuvers between the people both near and far from her that constitute the dense tapestry of her life.
In many ways, this is a film about those connections. Though Ji-young knows that she’s not feeling well, she doesn’t know that she occasionally disassociates, adopting the personality of close friends and family members. It’s a secret that her husband Dae-Hyun (Gong Yoo), has kept from her out of fear that it will make her condition (if that’s the best word for it) worse. But the film doesn’t play this up as a sign of psychological unraveling or schizophrenic breakage. Ji-young is decidedly not “crazy” or “malfunctioning.” Instead, it shows how pain and exhaustion accumulate and reveals the threads that cross the vacuums of time and space to connect people to each other. No one is an island, and Ji-young’s invocations illustrate the ways in which the voices of those we love are constantly with us— how their traumas, generosities, and mistakes find a host in our hearts.
In a pivotal scene, Ji-young speaks as her mother’s father and apologizes to her mother—who had to give up her dream of being a teacher to work at a factory and support her brothers through college—for not appreciating her while he was still alive. Though this is not a world of magical realism in which spirits speak through people, it is a world in which there are words left unsaid, messages that we wish someone could deliver for us. So when Ji-young’s mother cries it is not only for her daughter, who she now realizes is ill, but it is also for herself: an acknowledgment of the scars that remain even after those who inflicted it are gone. Inherited trauma is reflected and worked through in an act that gestures towards the possibility of healing.
This possibility is what makes the film feel, at heart, optimistic. Imperfect as they may be, the harmful characters are not irredeemable nor are the traumas of the harmed insurmountable. Change may not come for everyone, and the burdens accompanying that change will unjustly fall on some (read: women) more than others. But the movement forward is tangible, as characters confront their own complicity, their own fear, their own regrets, and new generations begin to un-work the sins of their parents.
Kim directs all of this with a combination of empathy and technical precision. In domestic scenes involving multiple generations and family members, she expertly communicates the complex family dynamics through blocking, framing, movement. The spaces that characters occupy and their actions within those spaces illuminate the hidden architectures of labor that burden the women in the film. Systems of complicity, tradition, and power are dissected with analytic prowess by the camera. The film is never heavy-handed, but it is lucid. Layering daily moments on top of each other, Kim expertly molds the affective resonance of her film using the banal meat of the everyday.
The pacing may not be for everyone and some might feel that the ending is overly saccharine or too “feel-good.” Though I felt the ending was earned and indicates progress (not perfection), it will ultimately be up to each viewer to decide for themselves. Regardless of where one lands on these questions, it’s undeniable that this film is an incredible debut feature by Kim. Korean art films that have gained popularity in the US and internationally have historically been overtly violent, destructive affairs, often made by directors of a similar ilk (looking at you Kim Ki-duk). Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 offers a glimpse into an alternative vision of Korean cinema. I, for one, can’t wait.
Rating: 4 / 5
This film was screened as part of the 2020 New York Asian Film Festival.
Film pages: IMDb