Released in 2016, Cho Nam-Joo’s novel Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 has proven an international success, having been translated into twelve languages and selling over a million copies worldwide. Its chronicle of culturally entrenched sexism and misogyny, planted firmly in the domain of the everyday, has inspired enthusiastic approval from legions of fans and rallied fierce detractors in equal measure, driving a wedge between the rapid cultural evolution and long-standing social conservatism of contemporary Korea. 

When actress Jung Yu-Mi was announced as the star of the novel’s cinematic adaptation, she was inundated with thousands of vitriolic comments on her social media profiles, as were most prolific women who appeared to endorse the novel online. A petition, directed at President Moon Jae-In with the aim of blocking the film’s release entirely, gained significant traction. In the filmic landscape of 2020, where feminism has been reduced by Hollywood to a fatuous and politically flaccid gimmick which facilitates the reconfiguration and regurgitation of existing franchises, Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 is a sobering reminder of feminist cinema that is genuinely subversive. 

Debuting director Kim Do-Young creates a stark, unforgiving aesthetic through muted colours and the liberal use of handheld photography, as the camera dotes on the subdued anguish of Ji-Young. Jung demonstrates grace and resilience in the title role, sketching a suitably elliptical character through subtle gestures and far-away glances. In a similar manner to Jordan Peele’s treatment of racism in Get Out, Kim’s film excels in articulating a broad range of sexist encounters that aren’t always overt or histrionic. Most interestingly, the film is preoccupied with the Foucauldian idea that it is women as well as men who perpetuate gender inequality; the titular character’s domineering mother-in-law, who balks at the prospect of her son taking paternity leave so that his wife may return to work, encapsulates this perfectly.

Perhaps a product of the always tricky process of adapting a novel to film, Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 sadly loses its way as it progresses, as subtlety gives way to lashings of melodrama and various subplots and flashbacks zip by without much room for the viewer to breathe. It’s a shame the film’s muted final moments don’t pack more of a punch; the viewer is doled out a naive resolution which can’t help but undermine the righteous indignation inspired by much of the film’s duration.  

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 and various other films are streaming as part of the Korean Film Festival between Oct 29 and Nov 5: https://www.koffia.com.au/2020/