When it released in 2016, nobody thought former scriptwriter Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 would go on to become such a spectacular success, as well as a magnet for controversy.
Two years later, it became the first Korean novel in nearly a decade to sell over 1 million copies.
The book began multiple overdue debates on feminism and women’s rights in the country in spheres ranging from politics to entertainment. According to Korea Times, sales of the book go up every time issues of gender equality are raised in the country.
Now, its cinematic adaptation is also making waves at the box office at a time when Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite has become a breakout hit in the US.
The response to Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, both the book and the movie, are being read as symbolic of the struggle against sexism in the country.
Why so controversial?
The novel tells the story of a married woman in her thirties who gave up her job to become a stay-at-home mother, and details the casual, everyday sexism she faces at various stages of her life, which eventually push her to a brink.
“It is curious that a book not primarily focused on sexual violence has become a cultural touchstone for Korea’s version of the Me Too movement,” E. Tammy Kim wrote in the South China Morning Post, tracing how the book’s release dovetailed with a series of incidents in Korea to spark the #MeToo movement.
The writer, Cho, has said that she wrote the book to speak to the woes of Korean women in their 30s.
“They were born in the 1980s, when selective abortion of females was rampant, and grew up watching the harsh labour market for minorities. They are highly educated, but quit their jobs to become full-time housewives after getting married and giving birth.
“What Kim Ji-young experienced does not come from financial hardships or regional limits, but because she is a woman ― a common and ordinary woman,” she said in an interview released by the book’s publisher Minumsa.
To this effect, Cho included footnotes with statistics in her book.
It hit many a nerve. One of the ways the backlash transpired was through a proposal to parody the novel. A group of Korean men began crowdfunding to produce a book called Kim Ji-hoon, 1990, featuring a male protagonist born in 1990 to show the “reverse discrimination” that “men in Korea face on a daily basis.” The protagonist, a young Korean man, would come to realise he had wasted his youth in mandatory military service, which women don’t have to go through. The project did not materialise, Quartz reports.
But it didn’t stop there. Multiple female celebrities faced backlash for just talking about the book.
Male fans burnt photos of K-pop singer Irene (from the group Red Velvet) and ditched her merchandise after she said she had read Kim Ji-young, Born 1982.
Sooyoung of Girls’ Generation was bullied online for talking about the book’s influence on her reality show and why she related to the sexism felt by the book’s protagonist. The K-pop star, who drew inspiration for her show’s name from the book title, also said she had never talked about anything so serious on TV before and wondered if sharing her concerns about life as a woman would be relatable to other people.
Singer and actress Suzy was criticised for sharing a poster of the film on Instagram last month, with the caption “Our story”.
Unsurprisingly, male entertainers such as BTS’s RM, MC Yoo Jae-suk and comedian Noh Hong Chul, who have also publicly said they read the book, did not face the same kind of criticism.
In fact, RM has blurbed the English translation of the book, set to release early next year.
But the reaction is symptomatic of how taboo feminism still is in South Korea, a country that has seen its music and entertainment industries gain millions of fans around the world since the 1990s.
Last year, K-pop star Naeun had to delete a photo on Instagram in which she was seen with a phone cover that said ‘Girls can do anything’. The criticism prompted her agency to release a statement clarifying the cover had been a gift.
In 2016, actress Kim Jayeon was removed as the voice of an online game for tweeting a photograph of herself wearing a t-shirt that read ‘girls do not need a prince’, following complaints from fans. According to BBC, the t-shirt was sold by radical feminist group Megalia, which was using the proceeds to finance lawsuits brought by women against men they alleged had ill-treated them.
Feminism is particularly taboo among young men in the country. A report released by the Korean Women’s Development Institute in 2019, which surveyed 3000 Korean men between 19 and 60 years, said that half of the men in their 20s were anti-feminism, charecterised by high levels of negative perceptions and stereotypes about the movement. “Half of the men in 20s perceive women as a group who hates and attacks men, and as those with unreasonable demands, despite their equal status as men,” a report on the survey said.
The sentiment seemed to echo in comments made by a young spokesman of South Korea’s ruling party, who criticised the film and said men also faced similar levels of discrimination. (He retracted his comments after backlash.)
Making the film
Kim Ji-young the film began receiving bad ratings on web portals much before it even released.
Director Kim Do-yeong, who made her feature film debut with the adaptation, said she felt a lot of pressure to make sure she could translate the film’s themes and values to the screen.
“As a mother of two, a daughter and someone living in this society, there were a lot of parts (in the book) that I could relate to,” she said.
Following the announcement that actress Jung Yu-mi would play Kim Ji-young, the comment section on the Instagram post became the site of heated exchanges between fans and detractors.
According to Yonhap, comments mocking the film also spilt onto the Facebook page of cinema chain CGV as well as Naver and Daum, the top two search portals in the country.
Actress Jung said the controversy over her casting did not bother her but made her wonder why the book was so controversial. “All I knew about (the story) is that the novel had been a hot topic. I became aware of the story through the script first. After I decided to take on the role following a meeting with the director, it raised a lot of issues, but I thought that it is our job to make the story that we want to tell and show people,” Soompi quoted her as saying.
She also said she felt both guilty and responsible while taking on the role. “I can’t fully understand what it’s like (since I’m not married and don’t have a child), but I wanted to try expressing that side of the story.”
Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 has sold over 3.5 million tickets so far and topped the Korean box office in the week of its release.
In its first week in South Korea, it climbed over Joker and Maleficient 2 to the top spot, and maintained a decent second position in the following week after the release of Terminator: Dark Fate.
On Naver, women gave the film an average of 9.5 out of 10 stars even as men’s ratings averaged at 2.5 stars, Reuters reported.
The report said women seem to be driving the film’s box office success, buying tickets in support of a cause without actually going to the cinema. Social media posts say this is called “sending one’s soul”.
31-year-old Oh Sun-young told SCMP that while she’d seen comments from men online calling the film is “full of lies” and a “feminist fantasy”, she had felt that it showed “only a small part of the misogyny that exists in our society”.