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'My Generation' reveals troubles of young Koreans

2004/11/29 | 595 views | Permalink | Source

Today's young Koreans do not know what poverty means. Living off their affluent parents, they upgrade their upscale mobile handsets in less than six months, and spend recklessly on fashion and leisure. Or so you think.
"My Generation", a small-budget film directed by Noh Dong-seok, trains its camera on the largely ignored segment of Korean youth - those who struggle to survive amid mounting debt and utter hopelessness.

Byeong-Seok (Kim Byeong-seok) is a hard-working twenty-something who dreams of becoming a film director in the future. But the reality is relentlessly harsh. He makes charcoal at a restaurant and works part time at a gas station, but he is unable to get out of sheer poverty.

The prevalent image is a trap. He lives with a friend in a tiny, shabby rented room that suggest a prison cell. With an empty stare, he plays a video game at night, while his friend, who hawks health food all day twists and turns in bed.

Byeong-seok, however, keeps dreaming. At least he has a video camera, a tool that he hopes will lead to a new career. But what he captures with the camera is cheap wedding shots in return for a paltry fee.

He also points his camera aimlessly at pedestrians. There is no specific purpose, no explanation about what he is really up to.

Jae-kyung (Yoo Jae-kyeong) is Byong-seok's girlfriend. Her life is as miserable as it can be. She doesn't have any specific skills. Somehow, she gets a clerk job at a loan shop operated by a creepy middle-aged man, only to be fired on the very first day for being of no help.

The fact that both Byeong-seok and Jae-kyung do not have a decent job reflects the nation's thorny youth unemployment problem. While the overall unemployment rate is 3.5 percent, the figure for the 15-to-29 age group is more than 7 percent.

Government policymakers talk about countermeasures, but there is no sign of improvement in youth unemployment. As the economy is mired in the protracted slump and new jobs are scarce, when a youth gets a job - whatever job - at a company, he or she is regarded as a "jewel of the family".

Against this hopeless backdrop, Jae-kyung's facial expressions speak louder than any other cinematic plots. She looks deeply gloomy and depressed throughout the film. It seems that she doesn't know anything about vitality or happiness in her entire life.

But Jae-kyung brightens up a bit when she meets Byeong-seok. They care for each other, though the circumstances are hostile, to say the least. Often, they sleep together in Byeong-seok's compact car because they don't have enough money to go elsewhere.

In one scene, they sneak into the restaurant Byeong-seok works in the early hours and he serves a leftover dish to Jae-kyung. She hesitates to eat, while he urges her to eat it up, with a florescent light showering over the empty restaurant.

The couple's disheartening situation is in sharp contrast with the happy-go-lucky youth of Korea widely promoted by TV commercials and movies. It is almost painful to watch the couple navigate reality fraught with hostile factors and nasty people.

Something more painful awaits the couple. Byeong-seok's trouble-making older brother borrows money from a loan shop. The problem is that the brother secretly names Byeong-seok as the debt guarantor. Now, Byeong-seok has to pay back the money.

The older brother visits Byeong-seok at night. The two walk the night street without saying a word. In the dark corner, the guilt-ridden older brother asks Byeong-seok to hit him. Byeong-seok can't. The two simply collapse in despair.

In fact, the devastating debt-guarantee problem among family members is common in Korea. Because of the tight familial relationships, it is difficult to refuse a request to serve as a debt guarantor for one's family members. But when things go awry, the entire family and their relatives inevitably go bankrupt.

Jae-kyung also finds herself in a financial debacle as she gets cheated in an Internet pyramid sales scam. To repay mounting debt, she attempts to get some loan by using her credit card illegally.

Just like Byeong-seok and Jae-kyung, a growing number of Koreans including youth find it hard to stay above water. Naturally, the number of bankruptcies and financial problems similar to that of the couple is on the rise. According to the latest government figure, some 3.7 million people - one in six out of economically active population - are classified as defaulters, and each household has a debt of 30 million won on the average.

Desperate to handle the deteriorating situation, Byeong-seok decides to sell his precious camera. Before handing over the camera to a new owner, Byeong-seok captures the image of Jae-kyung. After listening to what Byeong-seok will do with his camera and thinking about their miserable state, Jae-kyung finally shed tears.

The movie, however, is not about hopelessness only. While most scenes are shot in black and white, the images captured in Byeong-seok's camera are in full color, suggesting that the future might be brighter.

Jae-kyung also urges Beyong-seok to turn off the camera in the last scene. Jae-kyung's gesture indicates a glimmer of hope for Korean youth. Only when youngsters turn off the camera and take a close look at themselves and the reality, can the problems be surmountable.

Main characters in "My Generation" are not professional actors. They are all part of the six-member (yes, only six) production staff. That's why the production cost for this digital indie film is a meager 30 million won, which is extremely small compared with other mainstream Korean films whose budget easily goes beyond 3 billion won.

Director Noh, 32, has made a feature film debut with "My Generation", which will be distributed through the Artplus Cinema Network, a set of theaters which specialize in indie and art-house films.

By Yang Sung-jin

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