Catching Friendship in Kim Min-Young of the Report Card
Kim Min-young, Sanna and Young Jeong-hee put their acrostic poetry club on temporary furlough, 100 days before college entry exams so as to spend their time studying for those very important finals. Out of the three, only two get into university, Sanna to Harvard and Min-young to Daegu University. Jeong-hee doesn’t get a place, but she doesn’t really seem to mind that much. Instead, she gets a job at a local tennis club, where she welcomes customers and designs pamphlets in her spare moments. Her true passion turns out to be drawing and she is secretly happy to pursue her artistic talent without the extra burden of schoolwork. While picking up rogue tennis balls around the courts, she is drawn to the forested surround, picturing herself there, completely free to pursue her creative talents. She’s even more interested in that freedom than she is in the handsome son of the tennis club’s owner, who was in the same year as her in school, and himself got a place at university. Though he is briefly placed as a question mark in the film’s landscape, a possible way out – in Korea, pressure to succeed in the most conventional ways is extremely high – she sidesteps even this avenue in favour of her own life path.
The film strongly reminded me of J.D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, that tour de force coming-of-age story published way back in 1951. The novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, leaves school and goes to spend a few days in New York alone, before the official beginning of the holiday break. The famous quote from Catcher, which gives it its title, describes the only thing Caulfield can imagine doing for a job: “I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them”. This desire to protect friends from loss of innocence is mirrored in Jeong-hee’s attitude towards the world and her friends. She is not pretending to be something that she’s not, gleefully running away from the pleasures of childhood at full tilt like most of her peers. In fact, Caulfield and Jeong-hee share many characteristic’s – a steady disregard for what Caulfield calls “phonies”, a desire to return to nature, and a steadfast refusal to give in to social norms.
Like Caulfield, who loves to spend time with his younger sister, Jeong-hee doesn’t disdain childlike activities or pastimes. She tries to get the poetry club started again, but as the months pass, all of the girls save Jeong-hee stop turning up to the online meetings. Jung-hee is thus faced with a blank screen reflecting her own image back at her. Frustrated by the loss of contact with her friends, she calls Kim Min-Young and asks them to spend a weekend with her. They agree to meet in Seoul where Min-Young is able to stay at an uncle’s empty house. But when she arrives, everything is different between Jeong-hee and her friend, who seems to be trying to one-up her on everything, as if to justify that her acceptance into university somehow proves that she is a more worthy human being. Though the power play is carried out subtly, it’s rather painful to watch, especially because Min-Young is clearly better off financially than Jeong-hee, her uncle is going to get her a great apartment in Seoul, she’s better dressed. Work seems far from her reality, whereas Jeong-hee’s recent job loss is a true spoke in her wheels.
During her trip to Seoul, Jung-hee has brought a list of everything the two schoolgirls had said they would try to do together after they finished school. The list is funny, it has everything from physical feats to making rice balls. Min-young is not interested—or at least pretends not to be—and eventually, she leaves the house from sheer frustration, perhaps at her friend’s unwillingness to give in to doing what is perhaps expected of her, expressing shame and desolation for her failure to do what her friends managed to do. In this way, the film cleverly depicts how this kind of system entraps not only those who fail to live up to society’s norms but also those who don’t. Min-young was a good poet (we saw this at the very beginning of the film) and now she claims to disdain artistic pursuits. She calls out her friend for believing that it is possible to continue to dream as an adult. Meanwhile, the film uses voice-over cleverly, often to show what the characters are really thinking, beyond their veneer of callousness. This is especially powerful for the voice of Min-young, whose rich inner life is gradually revealed throughout the film thanks to the trope.
Often films about young people compare and contrast by showing conflict or encounters with older figures. But here, aside from a very brief shot of someone’s parents and a boss, the lens stays focused on the young women it is about. This insularity allows us to identify more closely with the characters, we can immerse ourselves in being teenagers again. Though the film is unpolished, and there are some awkward jump cuts that almost leave us dizzy, the subject matter is so rich that it’s still worth sitting through. The way the film immerses us in the problems of young people is a steady reminder of how far we have come. At the beginning of the film, Kim Min-young reads one final poem. It’s a simple little ditty about how common her name is, and what it means for her to belong to a horde of Kim’s who are all vying for attention in the world and yet it allows for a clever circling back towards the end of the film, and a nice reminder of the importance of friendship.