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Kim Ji-young – the different faces of motherhood

Cho Nam-Joo graduated from sociology and worked as a script writer for a TV station for almost a decade. After getting married and having the first child, her professional career has changed drastically. She decided to prioritise her family life over work and committed herself to raising her son. The experience revealed a tough reality that stands behind the beautiful and illusional image of motherhood. With every month, the frustration of Cho Nam-Joo was growing and she couldn’t meet the high expectations on motherhood in Korean culture. Instead of joy and happiness, she experienced the feeling of emptiness and of a failure. In the misogynic society she was living, she couldn’t freely express her sadness and anger so she decided to put herself to writing. Two of her novels were published but it was the third one, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, that brought her a widespread recognition and draw attention of the filmmakers. 

Three years after the publication of the novel, the story was turned into a feature film starring Jung Yu-mi and Gong Yoo. The main character, Kim Ji-Young, is a loving wife and an attentive mother who seems to suffer from postpartum depression. She spends all days at parks and playgrounds with her little daughter watching her after. Kim Ji-Young performs repetitive tasks at home – cleaning, washing, tidying up and preparing meals. She is living a stable life with a supportive and tender husband who plays the role of provider of the family. For the outsiders, Kim Ji-Young’s life seems to be simple and carefree. Even her doctor is surprised that the woman has developed a wrist injury – after all, it’s the machines that do all the hard work at home nowadays. The young mother experience shame and guilt while she hears people whispering about her. The strangers watch her in a park sipping a coffee being surrounded by a beautiful nature and her baby daughter sleeping calmly in a stroller. They say they would like to trade places with her if they could. Kim Ji-Young blames herself for not being able to enjoy her life as a mother and housewife. She wonders if some of her friends from a PR agency where she was working in the past could understand her present situation. Kim Ji-Young is asking herself about her identity that has change completely since she gave birth to her daughter.

The director of the film, Kim Do-young, depicts South Korean society and focuses on the position of man and woman in a family. Kim Ji-Young respects local family traditions that have their source in a deeply patriarchal society where the boys are placed on a pedestal from the early age. The ancestral values doesn’t match with her ambitions and needs, neither with her husband’s progressive approach, however, the man’s family plays a pivotal role in maintaining the model of the family that has been repeated generation by generation. Kim Ji-Young makes a personal sacrifice and avoids conflicts. Meanwhile, the suppressed feelings grow stronger and stronger and transform into psychotic break. The unexpressed frustration manifests itself in episodes during which Kim Ji-Young speaks unconsciously as if she was possessed by someone and she cannot recall what she has just said shortly after it occurs. The phrases, even though expressed with the first person singular, doesn’t belong to the woman. As the story develops, the spectators may notice that the words that Kim Ji-Young repeats most likely represent the worries of Kim’s mother and grandmother who repressed their feelings and never verbalised their internal concerns.

The film Kim Ji-young: Born 1982 illustrate social pressure and debunks the myth of beautiful motherhood. Despite the frequent humiliations and difficulties that the main character is living through, Kim Ji-Young finds her own way to express her inner thoughts and feelings and becomes a voice of multiple generations of mothers who were left unseen and unheard. The story is based of a personal experience of the author of the novel and supported by a scientific research made by the writer during the period of maternity leave and the time when Cho Nam-Joo struggled to reenter the workforce. According to a study made by the National Library of Korea, the book was the most borrowed novel in the country in 2019 and the readers were usually women in their 40s. The film that is an adaptation of this feminist classic novel brought mostly female audience to the cinemas and contributed to a better understanding of a complexed process of rising a child by presenting various facets of motherhood.