Movie Review: Our Body/아워 바디 (2019)

What’s it like to meet someone who embodies a purpose? How do you cope when that person moves on?

“The moment I wanted to stop, is the moment I started running.” Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Spoilers for first half of film. Source, all images: Naver Movies.

What main character Yun Ja-yeong (Choi Hee-seo) does stop at the beginning of this film is studying for years alone in her small, dingy apartment for the civil service examinations, the path to securing a rare stable job in Korea. Her goal was—is—depressingly normal, shared by as many as half a million young Koreans at a time.

What makes Ja-yeong different to them is that she’s done nothing else since graduating. That she chose this path despite having attended a prestigious university, which would have made her a shoo-in for most other jobs. But now she’s too old for those at 31, which also means she kept at her goal long after most would have wisely given up. Her inexplicable failure is further compounded by her briefly-seen boyfriend pointing out that she has no life or ambitions outside of studying and passing. (After some unenthusiastic sex, he leaves her for precisely this reason. She seems surprised—already we’re not.) Even her fateful decision not to take the latest round of exams is taken more out of apathy and resignation than resolve about what to do next.

But when the enormity of having wasted her entire adult life does hit her, it hits hard. She collapses in tears in a local park, the cheap convenience store food she lives off tumbling down the steps.

Then as if in a vision, the figure of jogger Gang Hyeon-ju (Ahn Ji-hye) suddenly materializes to hand her dropped items back to her, before vanishing out of her life again just as quickly. Looking poised, confident, athletic, and driven in her expensive athleisure wear, she is everything Ja-yeong is not.

Drawn like a moth to the flame, over the next few weeks Ja-yeong watches YouTube videos about jogging and struggles to put them into practice, shuffling and wheezing around a school track in old sneakers and clothes, all for the sake of a chance to meet Hyeon-ju again. She must also get a job—it’s implied that her mother (a much too young for the role Kim Jeong-yeong) has been paying all her rent and living expenses all this time, but, bitterly disappointed with Ja-yeong’s decision, may not do so indefinitely.

Finding the job search difficult because of Korea’s blatant ageism however, middle-school friend Min-ji (Noh Susanna) takes pity on Ja-yeong and manages to get her a basic, entry-level admin job in the company she works at. Yet she’s awkward there, unable to relate to her much younger coworkers, nor sharing their ambition. You sense that her time there will be short.

Then she does find Hyeon-ju. Soon, Hyeon-ju’s brought her into her large jogging club, then later lets her go on group runs with her and two other male members once she’s improved. Yet for all the viewer’s anticipation of their meeting again, the development of their relationship is glossed over, the focus going on Ja-yeong’s ensuing physical and mental transformation instead. Suffice to say, she becomes every bit as confident of herself and proud of her body as Hyeon-ju. This reflects in her job too, where she realizes the opportunities that are open to her, and even plans on a career.

Yet still her mentor remains frustratingly private. Only after running together for months does Ja-yeong even learn that she works in the publishing industry, and is a fledgling author.

That admission does presage a greater level of intimacy to follow, with more sudden phone calls from Hyeon-ju for personal midnight and sunrise runs together, and invites to drink at her place. In the first, after pointedly asking Ja-yeong what her sexual fantasies are, a very drunk Hyeon-ju strips to her underwear due to the heat. It sounds cliched, and is, but despite yourself you also yearn for them to begin a sexual relationship then—not only because of the camera’s focus on their bodies throughout this deeply sensual film, which makes it feel somewhat inevitable, but also simply for the opportunity to learn anything about Hyeon-ju at all. What makes her tick? What is she getting out of their relationship? What made her take Ja-yeong under her wing, a seeming basket-case who chased after her literally bawling her eyes out the second time she saw her, a complete stranger?

It doesn’t happen. Nor in the next visit, when Ja-young, concerned she’s missing their group runs and not answering her phone, waits outside her door until Hyeon-ju stumbles home drunk. Ja-young knows the reason is because her novel was rejected by a publisher, but doesn’t reveal this. Then after more drinks together inside, Hyeon-ju, in a rare moment of vulnerability, asks if she wants to read it—but Ja-yeong has already passed out.

Two minutes later of screentime later, Hyeon-ju’s dead, hit offscreen by a car during their next run together. It’s strongly implied she stepped in front of it deliberately.

Believe me, I debated over whether to reveal that spoiler.

I plead that after her death, exactly halfway in, Our Body feels like a different film entirely, impossible to discuss further without mentioning the circumstances that precipitated the change. For in that second half, the focus moves to her job, where Ja-young must deal with the conflicting demands of her grief, office politics, and her mother’s and friend’s expectations. Suddenly, she is every young Korean woman, chafing at her assigned place in a deeply hierarchical, status-obsessed, and sexist society.

Watch the film primarily for that last element, and you’ll be rewarded; I’ll wrap up my brief review here for so as not to spoil it.

But do not necessarily expect to be able to answer the question many other reviewers raise, of if Ja-young wants to be Hyeon-ju, be with Hyeon-ju, or both.

If forced, I’d argue the former. Primarily, because despite her growing confidence, Ja-yeong never initiates contact beyond that desperate chase at the beginning. Indeed, perhaps because Hyeon-ju comes across as somewhat of a ghostlike figure throughout, aloof and distant to the end, never giving Ja-young much to grasp on to with which to develop any potential platonic or romantic desire. Yet being the intense focus of the main character for all that, for this reason the underdevelopment of Hyeon-ju’s own story is my main frustration with this otherwise softly subtle, thoughtful film. So too that of Ja-yeong’s middle-school sister Hwa-yeong (Lee Jae-in), whom you suspect by the film’s end is the only other character who has any real sense of how Ja-yeong has changed and what she’s going through—but those conversations Ja-yeong needs with her never happen.

There are many torrents available; alternatively, it can be watched online with subs at DramaCool. Please tell me your thoughts!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Related Posts:

Was 21 Year-old Jeon In-hwa *Forced* to Appear on TV in a Swimsuit?

The #MeToo era may be the first time that older models and actors have ever been able to open up about their own experiences. When they do, the media should listen.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Source: YouTube.

Sometimes you have to state the obvious to show just how absurd and unfair an everyday situation is.

One such is the constant stream of movie posters featuring women with no heads. So, comedian Marcia Belsky countered that with the ‘Headless Women Of Hollywood’ project, pointing out that heads are “first and foremost the thinking part of the human body, where our motivations and feelings are located.” It naturally follows that the headless images of women “we are bombarded with on a daily basis, tell us persistently that [their] thoughts, feelings and personal agency either don’t exist or are of no interest. Further, facial features are the way we recognize other people. It’s the face that makes us individuals. That too is taken away.”

Source: Extreme Movie (left, right).

Smiling faces then, and the consent implied within, seem obvious counters to charges of objectification. Again, it naturally follows that the world would be a better place if everyone bore that in mind in their production and consumption of popular culture.

Yet ultimately they can only be a guide too. And one which often falls under the weight of its numerous exceptions.

The MV for Spring Girls by Sunwoo Jung-a is replete with headless, ostensibly objectifying imagery. Yet it remains “both feminist and as sexy as hell.” Source: YouTube.

I’ve covered many of those exceptions elsewhere, as well as US philosopher and law and ethics professor Martha Nussbaum’s argument for necessary distinctions between ‘positive’ and ‘negative objectification.’ And yet another is the reality that actors’ and models’ smiles are often plastic, belying their unpleasant experiences with the photoshoots themselves.

No-one reading this would suppose otherwise. But again, it’s sometimes necessary to be reminded of the obvious. Because without the giveaway of the title, no-one would have ever suspected there’d been anything untoward about the following, utterly innocuous-looking commercial:

Featuring now well-known drama star Jeon In-hwa (54), it was her first for Julia Cosmetics’ ‘two-way cake,’ way back when she was 21. I only read about it at all, because first, a few days earlier I’d learned what happened to then 22 year-old Japanese actor and model Kiko Mizuhara in 2013:

Source: @UnseenJapanSite

And next, only because that prompted a double-take when I stumbled across the following segment of the January 20, 2020 episode of Naturally, in which Jeon In-hwa explains her own similar negative experience with that commercial, when she was about the same age:

Source: YouTube.

Specifically, from the 1:00 mark, Jeon In-hwa, Han Ji-hye, and So Yoo-jin begin talking about the former’s commercials in her youth:

And from 1:20, her issues with the one of her wearing a swimsuit (my emphases):

지난 20일 방송된 MBN ‘자연스럽게’에는 전인화가 출연해 처음이자 마지막 수영복 차림 광고에 대한 이야기를 언급했다.

…전인화는 “저 광고 때문에 울었다”며 “그 때는 절대 방송에서 파인 옷이나 수영복을 안 입으려고 했는데 현장에 가니 수영복이 준비돼 있었다”고 말했다. 이어 “너무 안 하고 싶어서 울었지만 결국 설득돼서 찍었다”고 덧붙였다.

On [yesterday’s] episode of Naturally, Jeon In-hwa’s ad was mentioned, her first and last appearance in a swimsuit.

…”I cried because of that commercial,” Jeon In-hwa said. “I had absolutely no intention of ever wearing revealing clothes or a swimsuit on TV then. But once we got to the shooting location, [I saw that] a swimsuit had been prepared [for me].” She added “I cried that I really didn’t want to do it, but in the end I was persuaded to, and the shooting went ahead.”

Jeong So-yeong, MoneyS, 21/01/2020.

All over in a few seconds, I admit I lay myself open to charges that I’m blowing things out of proportion. My title—maybe a little clickbaity. Jeon In-hwa doesn’t seem particularly wrought over the memory. She humorously—but explicitly—doesn’t want to talk about it (much) either. And the potential downer is quickly passed over by her costars.

“Persuasion” potentially covers a wide range of sins too, but doesn’t automatically mean “coercion.” What point then, is there in dwelling further on a young, inexperienced actor and model overcoming their nerves 34 years ago?

Alternatively, even if something more sinister did occur, there would be little possibility of legal recourse after all this time. Moreover, Korea has draconian libel and defamation laws, which are regularly used to silence sexual harassment and rape victims—and both Julia Cosmetics and Korea’s largest advertising agency Cheil Worldwide are very much still around.

I would tend to agree with letting it go then, if Jeon had gone on to do more commercials in swimsuits and/or revealing clothes. But she didn’t. For a young, attractive female model and actor destined to become a huge drama star, ultimately with 24 more years of endorsement deals ahead of her, that avoidance borders on remarkable.

Unless her first experience was genuinely traumatic?

Jeon In-hwa in 2016, reminiscing about being a reporter at 20 before she got her break as an actor and model. Source: Seoul Economic Daily.

The possibility means she at least deserves to be (gently) asked what happened in 1986 exactly. Yet not a single media outlet has followed up on her unburdening. Believe me, I’ve looked.

Yes, legal issues remain a concern. But if it’s not possible to talk about her experience in the #MeToo era, then when?

Without asking the questions, her costars, the producers of Naturally, and/or the media missed a golden opportunity. At the very least, for encouraging others to come forward, and for fostering a small moment of solidarity with different generations of victims.

Instead, their collective nonchalance perpetuates the absurdity and unfairness of another everyday occurrence. That crying your eyes out and then being forced to smile as you wear revealing clothes in front of strangers? It’s just what women have always needed to do, and always will need to do to secure that modelling gig, right? It’s certainly not something newsworthy.

I’m just saying I think maybe it should be.

What do you think?

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

I’m Ready to Pay for Korean Feminist Films!

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Image source: MediaUs

And have started doing so via the newly-launched streaming service Purplay (Twitter, Facebook), which focuses on short films about Korean gender issues and those by and about Korean women.

Alas, you’re going to need considerable Korean skills to enjoy the service. There are no Korean or foreign subtitles available, and just to pay 1500 won (US$1.28) for 72 hours’ access to one film took my long suffering wife and me about 45 minutes of navigating Korea’s kafkaesque internet payment systems, by which stage we were considering simply strapping some coins to a carrier pigeon instead.

Those Korea-wide problems are no fault of the site though. And, now that everything’s installed, a simple password should suffice for future payments.

In the meantime, my first film choice of 은하비디오 below is getting me all nostalgic over the video store I used to visit in my first year in Korea in Jinju in 2000. I’m also especially enjoying the warm buzz that comes with encouraging the creation of content I like by actually paying for it, rather than just complaining about what I don’t like as per usual. I recommend it!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Talk: Sympathetically, Gravely? North Korean Spies in Recent South Korean Cinema (SungKongHoe University, Monday 4pm)

North Korean Spies in Recent South Korean Cinema -- Stephen EpsteinSorry for the short notice. Please check out the posters for the details (click to enlarge).

Call for Papers: The 3rd World Congress for Hallyu

I’ve been asked to pass on the following:

wahs call for papers and contest flyerFrom the accompanying email (slightly edited by me):

…I am emailing on behalf of WAHS to inform you of an upcoming international conference in Dubai on Hallyu Studies. The conference, World Congress on Hallyu, is the third of its kind and aims to bring together academics, students, and organizations who have an interest in the phenomenon of the Korean wave, known as Hallyu. Currently, we have branches of research in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, North America, and Europe.

I have a attached a flyer for an official “call for papers” for undergraduate and graduate students. I hope that you can pass it along to students who would be interested in submitting to the conference or contest. The undergraduate student essay winners are eligible to win a cash prize for their research, while graduate students are eligible for free airfare and accommodation to the conference to present their research. Graduate students seriously interested in attending are urged to sign up for a WAHS membership to receive a discount conference entrance fee and possible stipends for our future spring conference.

More information can be found at the official conference website, via the Facebook page, or via Twitter.

Meanwhile, apologies that a bad flu and the start of the new semester has delayed the follow-up to my last post, and I’ll try to have it up soon :)

Korean Sociological Image #90: Watch Out For Those Italian Men…

Two back-to-back YouTube commercials for SK Telecom’s “T Roaming” Service, which have a blatant double standard:

In the first, actor Son Ho-jun freaks out when his girlfriend tells him she’s going on an overseas trip with her old college friends. First, he asks if any men are coming with her, but relaxes when she reminds him that she went to a women’s college. Only to freak out again when he learns she’s going to Italy:

T Roaming Italian MenWhatever your gender or sexuality, if your partner can’t trust you not to bang your friends or the natives when you’re more than a few days away from each other, then in my book that’s your excuse to move on and do precisely that.

But I’ll grant that it’s just a commercial, and that Son Ho-jun’s reactions are exaggerated for comedic effect. Also, provided you’re not too clingy, there’s nothing wrong at all with staying in touch while your partner’s away.

The double-standard lies in the huge contrast with the second commercial, which shows what Ho-jun needs the roaming service for when he’s overseas: access to a translation app, without which he doesn’t realize the local women are throwing themselves at him.

T Roaming French WomanOr, once he does realize that “With T Roaming, [he] can translate, take pictures, and do anything [he likes]”, that he can set up his own harem:

Foreign Women T RoamingAgain, it’s innocuous in itself, and I’m all for taking advantage of technology to make sure people don’t miss out on any potential liaisons. Given the selling point of the first commercial though, it’s a bizarre choice of follow-up.

Instead, I would have plumped for a more provocative, much more memorable version with his girlfriend and foreign men, showing Ho-jun exactly what she thinks of insecure boyfriends who want to keep electronic tabs on her.

Or, if that was indeed deemed too provocative, then simply two more commercials with the sexes reversed. As the only extra costs would have been the additional male actors and the extra shooting time, then you really have to wonder why not.

Because without those versions, these ones not only seem entirely aimed at men, but it’s very difficult not to contrast his Korean girlfriend’s childishness in the first—and lack of an angry response to his question about her male friends—with the boldness and confidence of the foreign women in the second. It’s also difficult not to place the commercials in the Korean media’s long history of depicting foreign women as sexual conquests, but foreign men as something to defend Korean women against. (Although this has been improving in recent years.)

What do you think?

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image Series, see here)