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South Korean movie on glass ceiling leaves society divided

Young men say it is they who are being discriminated against; women call them out

At one point, 25% of all movie screens in South Korea were playing "Kim Ji-young, Born 1982." (Photo by Sotaro Suzuki)

SEOUL -- "Kim Ji-young, Born 1982," a film based on a novel of the same name, has revealed a chasm in South Korea.

The story about a young woman's daily struggles and the discrimination she experiences has resonated with a range of women. In contrast, young men, many of who believe society gives them a raw deal, have shown a strong dislike of the film.

The novel sold more than 1 million copies in South Korea, and a translation became a bestseller in Japan. At one point, the film was playing on 25% of all screens in South Korea, a nation of 51 million. It attracted 2.7 million moviegoers in the first two weeks.

At one viewing, it looked like the audience was mostly women, but married and young couples were also on hand. When the movie reached its dramatic climax, muffled sobs could be heard from all over the theater.

The film did not strike at least one foreign viewer as being outright feminist. Like the novel, it matter-of-factly depicts the daily life of a young woman rather than sound a call for women's rights. But in South Korea, mainly young men have expressed strong hatred of the film. "Rating attacks" were rampant on online movie review sites before the movie's theater release, with naysayers giving it low scores to cause its overall rating to plunge. And nasty remarks regarding the lead actress, Jung Yumi, have been posted online.

Why do young men in South Korea hate "Kim Ji-young" so much? To this question, a student born in 1990 gave me a straight answer: "It may be a different story for those born in the 1980s, but I don't feel at all that men of my generation are treated more favorably than women; rather, I'd say it's the other way around."

Reactions to "Kim Ji-young, Born 1982" differ by gender and the age.   © Lotte Entertainment

The dispute has boiled over into the political realm.

Chan Jong-Hwa, a young spokesman of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, said that "in elementary school, we get a full swing slap on the cheek just for forgetting homework. At the age of 22, in the midst of our youth, we are required to do compulsory military service and must bear verbal abuse. And if we are shorter than 180 cm, we are destined to be losers [as women take no notice]. We men are constantly expected to show groundless manliness in our lives."

Chan's remark drew a firestorm of criticism. "It was such a poor response from the ruling government," one person said. Another said the spokesman's words reveal "how superficial his understanding of feminism is."

The spokesman retracted his comments, which nevertheless left their mark as seeming to represent the true feelings of 20-something men.

People in their 20s today have grown up with a set of values, including gender equality. They do not view women as weak because women typically do well academically and have an advantage in finding a job. Under the situation, men feel only women are protected.

Men in their 20s are also critical of how President Moon Jae-in is giving more active roles to women in his government. A poll by Gallup Korea released on Nov. 1 shows the government with a 32% approval rating among 19- to 29-year-old men. Only men 60 and older, a conservative generation, give the government a lower score, at 27%. Women in the 19-29 age bracket approve of the government at a 56% rate.

The film has also showed that not all South Korean women feel mistreated. "There are many things we enjoy and feel happy about as women, for example, men take us to dinner or give us presents, but the film focuses only on negative elements, which made me feel uncomfortable as a woman," one anchorwoman, Kim Na-Jeong posted on her Instagram. She was inundated by negative replies.

Many of those who have responded negatively to Kim seem to be women. One typical response goes like this: "Many people are plucking up the courage to take action, trying to eliminate discrimination, and you have thrown cold water on their efforts."

Such responses left Kim feeling physically ill. "Reading so many insults made my heart beat fast and I couldn't breathe," said Kim, who has filed complaints with the prosecutors' office against 32 people.

Furthermore, responses to the film vary between young and old women. A student in her 20s said the film made her feel like not getting married. "Husbands say they 'help' with household chores," she said. "The use of the word 'help' itself presupposes that household chores are women's work.

"Men in my generation deny it, saying the film describes 'a story of our grandmothers' era,' but nothing has changed."

Meanwhile, women whose children are grown up, are making comments like, "The movie is about things we've experienced and overcome, but the situation is getting much better than what our generation experienced."

While reactions and responses differ depending on gender, age and other factors, "Kim Ji-young, Born 1982," appears to have succeeded in convincing everyone in the nation of 51 million to reflect on themselves for better or worse.

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