By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, April 4 (Yonhap) -- It's an issue of long-held debate: Is corporal punishment the right choice for education?
Director Jung Ji-woo says "never" in his latest film drama, "Fourth Place," with abundant messages to Korean society where voices against parents' physical punishment of children are seldom heard.
Recent opinion polls have shown that more than 80 percent of parents think that spanking is necessary to properly discipline their children, as there is an old saying: Spare the rod and spoil the child.
But the film shows how violence is wrong, how it impacts kids and that anyone can unknowingly be an assailant.
Kim Gwang-su (played by Park Hae-jun), once cited as the hope of South Korean swimming after setting a new Asian record in the 1980s, leaves the national swimming team after being battered harshly by the team coach for skipping training for more than 10 days without notice.
Sixteen years later, he comes to train an 11-year-old boy named Jun-ho (Yoo Jae-sang) as a coach working for a small municipal gym. Jun-ho is a player who always finishes fourth in swimming competitions for primary schoolers, although he has a talent for the sport.
Gwang-su initially has no desire to teach the boy but completely changes his mind after witnessing his talent first hand.
Despite his past as a victim of violence from a swimming coach, Gwang-su trains the boy harshly, often employing cruel corporal punishment, to push him to do better. But the violence unconsciously impacts the boy, so he in turn spanks his younger brother in anger for wearing his swimming goggles.
The film also depicts how violence is exercised under the excuse of love.
To Jeong-ae (Lee Hang-na), Jun-ho's mother, fourth place means nothing. Her biggest wish is her son winning the gold medal in a race. So she does all she can to help him accomplish the goal: She attends regular services at a Protestant church where the mother of a former elementary school swimming champion attends to get tips, including the phone number of a competitive coach, from her. She later goes to a Buddhist temple to pray for the son's success but asks nothing for herself.
She finds that her son has gotten better after being trained by the coach but instantly knows what's going on from bruises all over his body. She looks the other way, though, thinking that the violence is necessary to give him a better future. "What scares me more is Jun-ho's taking fourth place rather than his being beaten," she says.
Gwang-su believes he would have been a good swimming athlete if he stayed in the team enduring all the corporal punishment from his coach. His regret leads to violence disguised as love towards the student.
The film is the 12th film project funded by the National Human Rights Commission. The state human rights watchdog has financed local films depicting human rights issues, including the rights of students and teenage single moms and social discrimination against multicultural families, since 2003.
"Fourth Place" mirrors Korean society in sharp but warm eyes: an overly competitive social atmosphere, parents who are willing to do anything to send their children to prestigious colleges and children who are together but immersed in smartphone games on their own mobile phones. It also shows Korea's PC bangs, neighborhood gaming centers, and how unplugging a home PC in operation is a mother's job when kids don't abide by their promise of their gaming hours.
Even with the heaviness of some of its subject matter, the film remains limpid and unsentimental until the very end, in keeping with its subject.
The underwater scenes where Jun-ho sneaks into a closed swimming pool and swims freely was beautifully shot and even looks magical. He looks happier than at any other time when he swims purely for the enjoyment of it, not to win races.
Director Jung of "Happy End" (1999), "Blossom Again" (2005) and "Eungyo" (2012) is known for his densely woven stories, delicate descriptions of emotions and beautiful images.
Premiering during last year's Busan International Film Festival, "Fourth Place" is set to open in local theaters on April 13.
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