Newly released feminist film reignites tension in South Korea


A movie adaptation of the bestselling novel that triggered a fierce sexism battle in South Korea was released on Wednesday. The novel, called Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 was published in 2016 and sold more than a million copies.

It tells the story of an ordinary 30-something Korean woman juggling work and family, and the gender discrimination she faces at each phase of her life.

The book was hailed by some as one of the most important feminist novels in Korean – but led to an outcry from anti-feminists in the country. And now, with the film’s release, those arguments are being revisited.

Kim Ji-young is one of the most common Korean names of the generation, and thus represents any Korean woman.

The book, written by Cho Nam-joo, a television scriptwriter, tells her story from birth to motherhood from the perspective of her male psychiatrist.

Although South Korea is economically one of the most advanced countries in Asia, it remains socially conservative. So much so, that female singers and actresses who said they read the book were attacked and bullied online.

Those who criticise the book say it presents distorted views, is highly subjective, and makes negative, sexist generalisations against men.

The male characters, they say, are portrayed as either actively or passively endorsing a culture of discrimination against women. Critics also argue it aggravates gender conflicts.

Asked why the novel resonated so strongly with Korean women, Lee Na-young, sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, told the BBC the “timing [of the novel]was remarkable”.

It came out in autumn 2016. Months earlier, a young woman was murdered near Gangnam metro station in Seoul in a hate crime.

The murderer testified in court that “he had been ignored by women a lot and couldn’t bear it anymore so committed the crime”.

“The book is not about someone special or a particularly miserable woman, but it’s about any woman. It follows Kim Ji-young’s life cycle and along the way one detects discrimination, exclusion and violence. And it hurts,” Prof Lee said.

Prof Lee pointed out the feminist movement in South Korea following the Gangnam murder was also led by “regular women”.

“They’re not women’s rights activists but simply women who sympathise with the victim,” she said.

“First they mourned for her. And then they identified with her, thinking they too are in danger [of such hate crime].

“And [then]they realised the correlation between the source of their fear and the discrimination they experience, and declared they won’t just do nothing about it.”

Prof Lee said the book struck different chords with women of different age groups.

Korean women in their 30s, like protagonist Kim Ji-young, were told they could do it all. So they grew up studying hard, working hard and playing hard. But reality set in as their careers progressed.

Women in South Korea earn only 63% of men’s salaries – one of the highest pay gaps among developed nations. The Economist also ranks South Korea as the worst developed nation in which to be a working woman, in its glass ceiling index.

The book became a bestseller in neighbouring Japan, China and Taiwan, according to South Korean publisher Minumsa. The publishing rights have been sold to 17 countries including UK, US, France, and Spain. (Source: BBC News Korea)