Walnuts and Women: Gender Roles in Post IMF South Korean Society as presented in Bong Joon-ho’s A Higher Animal by Samuel Minden Home / Publications / 2015/16 / ESSAYS / Walnuts and Women: Gender Roles in Post IMF South Korean Society as presented in Bong Joon-ho’s A Higher Animal by Samuel Minden

Walnuts and Women: Gender Roles in Post IMF South Korean Society as presented in Bong Joon-ho’s A Higher Animal
Samuel Minden, University of Toronto

Abstract: This paper examines the sexist treatment and societal views of women in South Korea that emerged following the IMF economic crisis as presented in Bong Joon-ho’s 2000 dark comedy, A Higher Animal. It seeks to show how the film uses its two primary lead female characters, Eun-sil and Park Hyun-nam, in order show the ways in which South Korean society looked down upon and obstructed women after the collapse of the nation’s economy in the mid and late 1990s. In the case of Eun-sil, the film shows the anxieties felt by men, specifically her hapless husband Ko Yun-ju, over women in the workforce, as they felt that “traditional” gender roles were being disregarded. The film also depicts the pressures placed on women by society to abandon their careers in order to support their families, as demonstrated by Eun-sil decision to quit her job so that she can help her husband in his desired career. This film also challenges conventional South Korean narratives of the time, which presented women’s abandonment of their professional careers as societal benefits, as it depicts Eun-sil’s decision as a tragic. In Yun-ju’s storyline, the film uses ironic and dark humour in order to present the manner by which South Korean society placed barriers against the advancement of women in favour of men. This essay seeks to explain how the film uses these two characters and their storylines in order to show the misogynistic attitudes of South Korean society following the IMF crisis.

Following the disastrous IMF economic crisis of 1997, South Korea was forced to reorganize its economy to one based on a neoliberal capitalist system, and hand in hand with this came the restructuring of Korean society. In this context, neoliberal capitalism, as defined by Dongjin Seo, is understood as an economic system that heavily emphasizes the free market’s ability to manage itself with little government control or support. It also creates a mindset that emphasizes the ability for the individual’s power over the self to be utilized to serve both the individual and society as a whole. One of the consequences to emerge from this shift was a severe loss of status for women in South Korean society, as the nation began to revert back to older patriarchal values.

Significantly, women were discouraged from establishing careers in fields of work traditionally held by men. This highly misogynistic view is critically examined and satirized by Bong Joon-ho in his 2000 film A Higher Animal with its depiction of the impact of these attitudes on women. In the case of Eun-sil, the wife of the protagonist, Ko Yun-ju, the director presents the tension resulting from her role as the breadwinner in the family, and the jealously of her struggling, unemployed husband (A Higher Animal, directed by Bong Joon-ho, 2000). In this manner, Bong deconstructs and counters the pervasive narrative of working women, in which their eventual downfall was viewed as righteous punishment for transgression of role boundaries, as discussed by Jesook Song in her article “Family Breakdown and Invisible Homeless Women: Neoliberal Governance during the Asian Debt Crisis in South Korea, 1997-2001”. In addition, through the hapless deuteragonist Park Hyun-nam and her attempts to gain fame, Bong shows the manner in which various levels of society in South Korea prevent women from economically improving themselves. Using the medium of film, Bong employs drama and dark comedy in order to present and mock the multitude of methods by which post IMF crisis South Korea perceives and neglects segments of society, exemplified in particular by their treatment of women.

In the aftermath of the 1997 economic crisis, South Korea not only rebuilt its economy but also changed its understanding of people’s roles in society. Both of these changes were influenced by the concept of neoliberalism, in which there is a focus on “small government and a heavy reliance on market mechanisms.” Economically, South Korea began to focus more on exports, further moving toward a Western style capitalist free market state. This economic ideology resulted in a new social perspective that was based on personal ability and one’s individual value to society, according to Donjin Seo in his article “The Will to Self-managing, The Will to Freedom: The Self-managing Ethic and the Spirit of Flexible Capitalism in South Korea”. Adherents to the economic development narrative praised these changes as leading to the revival of South Korea as an economic power. However, this new understanding of society resulted in the lowering of women’s status in society as they were seen as being unfit for work by the government’s welfare system. This is in contrast to the gains made prior to the 1997 crisis, particularly during the democratization movements of the 1980s, women from all branches of Korean society united to fight for equal rights and access to the same work as men. Song states that in the wake of the chaos caused by the economic crisis, many conservative traditions that placed women in exclusively domestic roles began to re-emerge. According to Song, these changes in the understanding of women’s role in society came as a reaction to the various gains made by women during the 1980s and 1990s, as traditionalists believed that these new rights had led to a degradation of Korean values and Korean society as a whole. As such, women were discouraged from entering the workforce and judged to be only suitable for parenting and other domestic roles.

Bong’s portrayal of the relationship between Ko Yun-ju and his wife Eun-sil offers a sharp criticism of this typical patriarchal understanding of women’s role in the workforce and society. Early on in the film, it is clearly established that Eun-sil is the breadwinner for the family, while the out of work academic Ko Yun-ju primarily lazes around the house, with only occasional work at menial jobs. Yun-ju is shown to be jealous of his wife’s work and feels that his own joblessness causes her to disrespect him. After a night of drinking with his old university friends, the inebriated Yun-ju says to his sleeping wife, “Tired? Then quit working. Stay home and be a mom.” In this quote, Yun-ju is shown to be advocating for the old patriarchal values of the 1960s that saw women’s primary role in society as being domestic and maternal, as discussed by Seungsook Moon in her book Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship. In this statement, Bong is demonstrating the resurgence of sexist beliefs in South Korean society, as described by Song.

A recurring image in the film is that of Eun-sil forcing Yun-ju to be subservient to her needs after she returns from work, such as cracking walnuts for her as an evening snack while she relaxes, or carrying heavy grocery bags while she walks ahead with their new dog. In Yun-ju’s mind, these actions are extremely demeaning to him and they cause him to believe that his wife only cares about her own needs. This sense of emasculation, distress, and anxiety caused by his view of the place of women in the workforce is portrayed in Yun-ju, as he is influenced by the old fashioned understanding of women’s role in society. Song notes that this storyline of the miserable stay at home husband and the cold, self-centered working wife “has been prevalent in Korean cultural texts throughout the twentieth century.” Typically in this plot, the story ends with the husband re-asserting his dominance over his wife and ushering in a return to the old social and economic order. Bong instead presents Eun-sil’s actions in a sympathetic manner after Yun-ju berates her on her supposed frivolous spending. Eun-sil reveals to her husband that everything she has done has been to help Yun-ju get his desired job as a professor, including leaving her job to obtain severance money to allow her husband to bribe the dean, as well as allowing her to prepare to raise their unborn child. In her tone of her response, she implies to Yun-ju that his chauvinistic view of her has blinded him from understanding the bigger picture. Things that appear frivolous to Yun-ju, such as buying a dog, are actually Eun-sil’s method of rewarding herself for her hard work, and as a consolation for all the things she has given up for her husband. Upon hearing this, Yun-ju becomes more sympathetic to his wife than he had previously been and seeks to make amends for his actions. By contrast to the early stories as described by Song, which presented women’s job loss as a just punishment for their transgressions against the status quo, Bong presents Eun-sil’s decision to quit her job as being a difficult sacrifice so as to support her husband’s traditional view. The personal cost to a woman’s sense of identity when she abides by the resurrected view of a woman’s place in society, is clearly illustrated by these characters.

In Park Hyun-nam’s storyline, Bong uses humour in order to emphasize the ridiculous ways in which South Korean society neglects women and prevents their economic advancement. Over the course of the film, the supervisors at the office where Park works constantly criticize her for taking numerous breaks either to hang out with her friend or to help apartment residents with their problems. At one point her boss threatens to fire her, saying “You’re not the only bookkeeper in the world. There are thousands of girls who would want your position.” By emphasizing that she is seen as disposable, Bong seems to be commenting on the manner in which South Korean society perceives women in the workforce as being less important than men. This view of women as inferior is further examined by Bong, through Park’s clumsy attempts to become famous. While engaged in a dramatic chase with Yun-ju, after witnessing him murder a dog, Park is just about to catch him when all of a sudden a door opens right in her face, and she is thrown to the ground, losing the chase. Through this moment of slapstick comedy, the scene can be interpreted as a metaphor for the customary way by which South Korean society obstructed women from receiving aid, or finding good work possibilities that were made readily available for men by the new welfare program that arose following the IMF crisis. At the end of the film, Park believes that she has finally made her dream come true when she and her friend catch a homeless man who had kidnapped and was about to eat Yun-ju’s dog. Later that night, when Park and her family are watching this story on the news, Park learns to her horror that her entire interview was cut out, with no mention of her whatsoever. In a cruel ironic twist, the only person to receive recognition for the dog rescue is the apartment’s corrupt janitor, who was actually guilty of cooking and consuming the previous dogs who had been murdered by Yun-ju. In this darkly humourous revelation, Bong appears to be showing the ludicrous ways in which women are ignored by society in favour of men, by taking it to a comedic extreme.

In summary, as discussed by Song, the major economic reforms that came out of the aftermath of the IMF crisis resulted in the decline of the status of women in society due to the neoliberal ideology that valued the individual’s worth to the economy and society. Bong Joon-ho uses his film A Higher Animal in order to examine and poke fun at this re-emergence of conservative family values. Through the relationship between Yun-ju and Eun-sil, he shows how this renewal of old gender division of roles can come about from feelings of jealously, a fear of emasculation, and a nostalgia for earlier days. In addition, in his focus on Eun-sil’s motives, he was able to offer an alternative perspective to traditional narratives found in South Korean media about women in the workforce. Finally, through Park Hyum-nam’s failed inept attempts to become famous throughout the film, Bong applies slapstick and ironic revelations to reveal the absurd ways in which women are held back economically in South Korean society. As such, Bong combines dark comedy and drama, to give women a voice about their thoughts and feelings, and to show the absurdity of the post-IMF South Korean neoliberal society’s traditionalistic opinions concerning women.

Works Cited

Bong, Joon-Ho. A Higher Animal. Seoul, South Korea. CJ Entertainment, 2000. DVD.

Ko, Sunho. “Homeless and Jobless: Living Insecure in Post-IMF Crisis”: Lecture Notes for Class EAS272HS. University of Toronto,
Toronto. 29 July 2015.

Moon, Seungsook. Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005. Web. 15 August 2015.

Seo, Donjin. “The Will to Self-managing, The Will to Freedom: The Self-managing Ethic and Spirit of Flexible Capitalism in South Korea.” In New Millennium South Korea: Neoliberal Capitalism and Transnational Movements. Ed. Jesook Song. London: Routledge, 2011. Pg. 97-113. Web. 28 April 2016

Song, Jesook. “Family Breakdown and Invisible Homeless Women: Neoliberal Governance during Asian Debt Crisis in South Korea.” In Positions: East Asia Critique, Vol. 14, No. 1. Spring 2006. Pg. 37-65. Web. 28 April 2016.