Starring critically acclaimed actress Jung Yu-mi as the titular character, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is an examination of the many ways misogynistic pressures underlie the everyday experiences of the modern South Korean woman. Adapted from Cho Nam-joo’s book of the same name and directed by female director Kim Do-Yong, Kim Jiyoung markets itself as a tale about and for the Everywoman.
Narratively, the film follows much of what occurred in the novel, weaving together the most striking incidents in the novel — told through flashback — in conjunction with the everyday happenings of Jiyoung’s present reality and the representation of her psychosis. The seamless transitions between such scenes streamline the broader theme of the story in a way that differs from the novel, which often appeared disjointed in the seemingly disparate elements that were given overt significance only later on.
Throughout its non-linear structure, Kim Jiyoung is constructed as more of a visual portrait of a woman than the society she inhabits. Close-ups on Jiyoung’s reactions center her expressions, mirroring her responses to her daily interactions. The film’s use of its spatial surroundings, in which Jiyoung always appears to be confined to a specific room in the house with her daughter or in a specific domestic occupation, implies the stifling nature of these spaces. These spatial and symbolic meanings add to the visceral portrayal of Jiyoung’s life in the domestic frame.
There is a clear departure in tone at the ending of the film, which differs significantly from that of the book. The film’s ending is considerably more optimistic, and Jiyoung’s character is given the space to develop as time goes on. Here Jung Yu-mi’s performance is especially brilliant; she manages to capture not only Jiyoung’s hopeless defeat and quiet desperation within her stances and facial expressions, but also the burgeoning anger that Jiyoung experiences as everyday incidents of sexism accumulate. Whereas the novel seemed to structure itself as more of a clinical account of gender inequality in South Korea in its incorporation of data and statistics, the film humanizes gender inequality in a way that has viewers empathizing with Kim Jiyoung as a character and woman.
It is worth noting that Gong Yoo’s role as Jiyoung’s husband Dae-hyun resonates in one of the most memorable performances of the film. Viewers may have seen Gong in his most heroic moments as a self-sacrificing father in Train to Busan, but in Kim Jiyoung Gong plays a man who is inherently good but has unconsciously internalized the misogynistic sentiments of society in his own thinking. He is simultaneously playful and emotional, harsh and kind. These complex determinants of a husband’s identity explain his interactions with Jiyoung and give his character the kind of depth that doesn’t necessarily justify his actions, but takes note of them as a societal issue across the country.
This in-depth character portrait is given to many, if not all characters in Kim Jiyoung. There is a tense kind of relief, for example, in Jiyoung’s playful and lighthearted interactions with her siblings, which seem to be the only respite from her everyday life. The backstory of Jiyoung’s mother is given more meaning in her compassion for her daughter; this theme of maternal love in the context of the domestic space is elaborated on through emotionally resonant scenes of concern and anger. Jiyoung’s headstrong sister sacrifices her dreams for her family, but nonchalantly dismisses that sacrifice as familial responsibility. And in a particularly simple but poignant scene, Jiyoung’s brother attempts to figure out Jiyoung’s preferences for bread with Jiyoung’s father, but instead confuses Jiyoung’s preferences for his own.
With any comparative reading, of course, it is necessary to acknowledge that a film and a novel are very different mediums and that each may be effective at addressing its subject matter in its own way. Each version of Kim Jiyoung has its imperfections, and the film does possess such imperfections in its somewhat understated nature. Yet while many may turn to the novel version of Kim Jiyoung for a more comprehensive and conspicuous depiction of the gendered dynamics in South Korean society, the film Kim Jiyoung is a more specific account told through the subtle visual symbols in Jiyoung’s life, which is where its merit lies.
From a Busan Bank apron — a stunningly mundane and yet powerful representation of Jiyoung’s life that is gifted to Jiyoung by her mother-in-law as a present — to the significance of the spilled coffee on a cafe floor and the subsequent derogatory remarks that ensue, the film’s visual cues of a society’s divisions shape the life of the woman it portrays. As a fictional narrative, Kim Jiyoung’s nuance lies in its specificity. Yet this specificity is what makes the film — and the character it portrays — a truly empowering account of reality.