BFF-43 ‘Dear My Genius’ documents S. Korea’s obsession with education





‘Dear My Genius’ documents S. Korea’s obsession with education

BUSAN, South Korea, Oct 6, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – A young filmmaker has turned
the camera on her own family to document South Korea’s obsession with
education and the severe toll it takes on its children — including her
sister — in the ultra-competitive society.

Koo Yun-joo’s documentary “Dear My Genius”, which premiered at the Busan
International Film Festival on Saturday, follows the director’s seven-year-
old sister and mother — who has plans to turn the little girl into a so-
called gifted child.

Many education authorities and colleges in South Korea regularly test
children on their ability in maths, science and other key subjects and award
those who excel with “gifted child” certificates — considered a big plus in
future university applications.

Young South Koreans devote most of their childhood and teenage years to
studying — which involves lots of rote-learning — to earn a place in one of
the elite universities seen as key to future careers and marriage prospects.

The South’s education system is often held up by other countries as a model
of rigorous meritocracy, but the pressure to score well has been blamed for
teenage depression and suicide rates that are among the highest in the world.

The documentary offers a rare glimpse into a real-life family dynamic
common in South Korean households, and the cut-throat competition facing the
country’s children likened by some to systematic child abuse.

To reach child prodigy status, Koo’s sister Yun-yung spends hours after
school at “hagwons” — private cram schools — to study subjects including
maths, English, Chinese, computer and essay writing.

Her mother keeps a detailed list of all the books the first-grader has read
since the age of five, and borrows from a local library 26 books every
fortnight — the bimonthly limit — aiming to make her read thousands of
books each year.

“I feel a sense of achievement looking at this,” the mother says proudly as
she updates the list with titles ranging from self-improvement books for
children to biographies of prominent figures.

– Tears and tantrums –

Stressed out while solving complex maths problems or memorising English
words late into the night, Yun-yung often bursts into tears, throws tantrums
and develops sudden headaches, while her mother either cajoles or berates her
to make her keep going.

The director, once a “gifted child” in science herself, clashes with her
mother over how to raise Yun-yung, saying rote-learning and the blind pursuit
of perfect test scores didn’t teach her how to figure out what she really
wanted in life.

Yun-yung also repeatedly talks about her dream to “become a gifted child”
and to “go to the best university” but she is lost for words when asked why
she wants this.

“I could see my mom was trying to raise Yun-yung like she did me and my
sister being crushed under pressure and changing into an angry, harsh kid…I
wanted to do something for her as well as mum,” Koo told AFP.

“Mum was also eager to change…but it’s easier said than done if you live
in this environment where all other parents and their children are racing
full-speed to get ahead,” said the 26-year-old.

A slogan inscribed in the playground of Yun-yung’s elementary school reads
“Only those who endure pain can smile”, while most residential neighborhoods
are packed with countless hagwons promising parents to make their children
“more special than others”.

Another of Koo’s sisters — an elementary school teacher — says most
pupils in her class are even more miserable than Yun-yung due to the pressure
to excel, with the top student in her class admitting to suicidal thoughts.

A playground in the Yun-yung’s neighborhood is empty most of the week, with
children busy hopping from one hagwon to another after school.

Koo’s family eventually decides to send Yun-yung to fewer cram schools and
ease the pressure on her to read — while the mother, a full-time housewife,
tries to devote more time to herself.

But tough challenges still lie ahead for the South’s conformist society.

One animation featured in the movie shows a group of figures with different
shapes and colors on a moving conveyor belt, before they are squeezed and
remolded into identical-looking figures with a “first-class 1” sign stamped
on their chest.

“I just wanted to make people take a step back and see what our children
are missing — including abilities to have fun, play with others, or quietly
reflect upon themselves — in this blind pursuit of academic excellence at
all costs,” said Koo.