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(Yonhap Interview) Young filmmaker questions S. Korea's cutthroat education in documentary

All News 13:50 November 05, 2020

By Lee Minji

SEOUL, Nov. 5 (Yonhap) -- Koo Yun-joo, 28, was once a "science prodigy."

The "good girl," who always aced her classes and was a reliable big sister, made her parents beam with pride when she passed a rigorous test that gave child prodigy status to a selected few.

Her tacit dad even saved Koo's name as "pride" -- instead of Yun-joo -- on his mobile phone.

Koo was ecstatic.

"The name 'prodigy' sounded so fancy ... Only one or two people at each school could take the bigger test, and I thought it would help me get points to enter a prestigious high school," the rookie filmmaker told Yonhap News Agency in a recent interview in Seoul.

"At first, it felt really good, like I had earned something. I felt good to have been labeled a 'prodigy' in the bigger system."

This photo, provided by OMG Production, shows Director Koo Yun-joo's sister Yun-young in the documentary "Dear My Genius." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

After passing the test, Koo went to the United States with her fellow child prodigies and flew model rockets at NASA. But it was ironically during her stay there that she realized she was not a prodigy in science nor did she want to be one.

Years later, Koo who became a senior majoring in English, turned the camera toward her home, where the spartan training to raise a child prodigy was once again taking place -- this time for her 7-year-old little sister Yun-young.

"Dear My Genius" follows how Yun-young and her mother, Sun-sook, team up for the mission of earning the "gifted child" status, while sometimes clashing over how far a parent should go in pushing a child.

While telling the Koo family's story, the 80-minute film questions the competitive education system in South Korea, where students are often pressured to give up sleep and friendship for cram school classes, and are judged by their grades and college entrance exam scores.

Yun-young, for instance, cannot hang out with her friends at the neighborhood playground since most of her friends are attending "hagwon," or after-school cram schools, with some going to up to 10 cram schools.

In one scene that shows the Koo sisters talking at home, Yun-young mentions how the prodigy test is something to take to become an "elite" and prove that she's smarter than her friends.

This photo, provided by OMG Production, shows the poster for the documentary "Dear My Genius." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE)(Yonhap)

"It's human instinct for people to want to be more special and better than others. But it's cruel how the South Korean education scene used this instinct to make it into a huge system where people race, without knowing why they have to compete or be better than others," Koo said.

"Teaching children that you can have a happy life if you learn to live as yourself is really valuable. But it's sad that the current system is teaching everything but that. So many are immersed in the system that keeps telling you to be special, better and ranks you in that order."

Despite the seemingly dystopian issue that the film touches on, the film itself is warm and engaging. The director tells her own story of how she has slowly come to accept that it's OK not to be a prodigy while showing the changes in her family with an affectionate and candid gaze.

Over the three-year period that the documentary was filmed, Yun-young grows, from a first-grader who feels "most happy" when attending hagwon to a fourth-grader who gets headaches and sheds tears about studying and doing homework.

It also documents the changes their mom goes through, from someone who borrows 26 books -- the maximum limit at their local children's library -- for Yun-young to read to a mother who realizes she may have been neglecting her life to focus on her children's academic success.

"My mom was shocked after watching the film premiere at the Busan International Film Festival. It was a rare chance for her to see how she appeared on screen. She has made efforts to change," Koo said of the impact that the film has had on the family.

"Her day used to revolve around Yun-young. But now she tries to separate herself and Yun-young ... She also scaled down a lot of things that had been focused on studying. For instance, most of the books she read were on education and self-help, now she reads novels."

This photo, provided by OMG Production, shows Director Koo Yun-joo (R) and her sister Yun-young in the documentary "Dear My Genius." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

As a former prodigy who felt constantly insecure and studied aimlessly to stave off that feeling, Koo said she hopes the documentary can provide some food-for-thought or comfort to parents and students struggling to survive the system.

"Yun-young said the film was fun, my family was all positive toward it, and my mom -- despite the risk of being portrayed as a negative character -- said she hopes the film can help others to reflect on education. I'm happy with that. But I'm also curious what other parents would think after watching this."

"We hear so many heartbreaking stories on how students commit suicide or suffer mental illness coming from the insecurity and pressure not to fail. Who am I to say, but I just want to tell them that it's OK, and you're good enough as who you are already."

This photo, provided by OMG Production, shows Director Koo Yun-joo's mother, Sun-sook, in the documentary "Dear My Genius." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE)(Yonhap)


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