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Debate rages on teen pregnancy in 'Jenny, Juno'

2005/02/15 Source

"Lolita", a fiction by Vladimir Nabokov that has generated widely mixed reviews from critics and mainstream readers, is often - rightly or not - synonymous with pedophiles. Debates about the film version are also never in short supply.

Similar heated shouting matches are playing out over "Jenny, Juno", a Korean movie which depicts puppy love between minors - and an unexpected pregnancy. The exact age: a 15-year-old girl and boy attending a typical junior high school.

For its sensitive topic and apparently sugarcoated portrayal of the teen's post-sex tribulations, the film has sparked a wave of exchanges online and offline among parents, teachers, students and even politicians.

Director Kim Ho-joon is not tackling a totally new subject, though. In his previous film "My Little Bride", he presented a lighthearted version in which a 24-year-old college student gets married with a 16-year-old high school girl.

Actress Moon Geun-young, who played the daring, cute character, was catapulted to the status of an undisputed teen idol overnight because of the charming images director Kim forged on the big screen.

For reasons unknown, critics did not take the topic too seriously, enjoying it as typical Romantic Comedy.

This time, however, for the characters life is tougher and people involved are touchy. The storyline is a no-brainer. Jenny (Park Min-ji) is widely popular among her friends. She's not only beautiful but also excels in class. Moreover, her parents are fairly wealthy.

Her couldn't-be-happier life confronts a serious turning point when a boy named Juno (Kim Hye-sung) has been transferred to Jenny's school. This cute, innocent-looking boy turns out to be a professional Starcraft network game player (a mock footage of a game taking place at Samseong-dong MegaWeb Station looks intriguing with the familiar voice spitting from one of the well-known real Starcraft anchors).

For Internet-savvy Korean teens, Juno's status as a Starcraft player means just one thing: he's extremely cool in the eyes of Jenny. He also sets his eyes on this charming, kind-hearted girl.

Their teenage romance goes a bewildering step further when they remain alone together and have sex. No actual sex scene is inserted and yet the following footage suggests they have had some physical contact with the couple lying on the bed together.

But these scenes are actually flashbacks. The movie opens with Jenny using a pregnancy test kit and finding out she will have a baby. In other words, a big chunk of the movie is devoted to grappling with teenage pregnancy.

On their own initiative, the teen couple decides to keep it secret and have the baby. Kindly enough, the film shows an image of an unborn infant torn into pieces in the process of merciless abortion operation. The message that "life is precious" is unequivocal. But frustratingly confusing is that the teen couple's covert childbearing efforts are heavily sugarcoated.

For instance, the kiddie father-to-be Juno delivers various foods to Jenny as she develops a strong appetite in accordance with her pregnancy cycle. When she catches a cold, she throws the medicine at a dog, telling her boyfriend that pregnant women should not be allowed to take drugs.

Cinematic techniques also help infuse as much as romantic elements into their relationships. When Jenny dreams about her encounters with Juno, the screen showers soft filter effects, accentuating the romantic softness of the characters.

Another burning issue is that Jenny's semi-naked body is exposed rather frequently, fueling speculation that the film has something to do with Lolita sex code.

Understandably, some parents and teachers are sharply criticizing the movie for its romantic depiction of teen pregnancy.

But director Kim wouldn't change his position that the film does not have such serious problems as claimed by some conservative groups. In the press material, he notes the focus should be placed on how we should deal with teen pregnancy.

"Jenny and Juno are certainly wayward children who should have never done a thing they did for their age. But it was a accident that they made the mistake and their love is in a way innocent. What should be really criticized is not the couple but adults who only say 'no.' This film shows how they make a mistake but how we should take responsibility", Kim says.

But what irks some critics and conservative parents is the happy ending of the story, and the underlying assumption about such conclusion. Jenny's father is fairly rich and owns an expensive villa in a scenic place and has enough money to send her to the United States when she has no other alternative to give birth to a baby.

Thanks to her wealth and high status, Jenny and Juno are largely protected by their parents when they opt not to have an abortion. What if Jenny and Juno were born into poor families and they belonged to the troublemaking group? Can they form a happy family amid blessings from their parents?

The happy ending bolstered by wealthy parents is rather an exception, and the message could mislead other curious and impressionable minors about getting pregnant at a young age and passing the buck to their parents, says the logic from skeptical viewers.

But the movie can be interpreted in a different way, as well. Kids inherently tend to make mistakes as the film describes, and in some cases it is not a total fiction that some junior high school students get pregnant in Korea and get abortions secretly. The more romantic the story becomes about the innocent teen couple, some viewers might feel the awkward gap between the cinematic idealism and a dire reality in which children less attended by indifferent parents fall into a trap.

Yet the movie does not have elements to be classified as a serious social satire. All the images drawing attention to the attractive female character and her dream-come-true romance easily pass for a trash novel devoted to dreamy-eyed teens.

Because of the controversial theme and depiction of teen pregnancy, "Jenny, Juno" is likely to fuel drive for a showdown between conservative parents and liberal-minded teen moviegoers for some time.

The winner of the debate will be decided when the movie hits theaters and viewers express their opinions through ticket sales. Perhaps, Nabokov might be interested about the result.

By Yang Sung-jin


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