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Korean film on school bullying rings true in Japan

by Philip Brasor

Last month, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released statistics for 2009 in which Japan ranked 31 out of 31 developed countries in terms of the portion of GDP spent by the public sector on education. It was the third straight year that Japan placed last.

As pointed out by the Mainichi Shimbun, the most important implication is that Japanese parents still pay a lot of money to educate their kids. The Ministry of Internal Affairs says that in 2010 the average household of more than two people spent ¥1.91 million on education, which was about ¥700,000 less than the amount spent in 2009 owing to the fact that the ruling party abolished tuition for public high schools that year. Nevertheless, this amount represented 37.7 percent of average annual income in Japan. The OECD says that private spending on education accounts for 31.9 percent of all funding for education, which is a lot, but in two other countries private expenditures count for even more: Chile and South Korea.

In Korea, in fact, household spending on education has become a serious social issue, since it is related to competition for acceptance to elite universities. Korean education is respected worldwide because of high achievement test scores, but for the most part children who do well academically receive much of their education in cram schools and with private tutors, which means richer students have a clear advantage. The situation is similar to Japan’s in that an education industry sprang up to take advantage of a perceived need and subsequently came to supplant the education system it was designed to supplement.

But there is a difference in perception between Japan and Korea regarding this situation. Recently, the Japanese media has focused on adolescent bullying as a problem that won’t go away and which schools have not tackled aggressively enough. However, few commentators in Japan have linked bullying in school directly to academic pressure. In Korea, school bullying is mainly seen as a side effect of scholastic competition.

A new Korean movie, “Pluto,” presents this problem within the structure of a conventional thriller. The No. 1 student at an elite high school is murdered and a classmate named June is held for police questioning because his cell phone is found at the crime scene. June gained admission to the school through hard work and talent. His single mother makes a living selling insurance. Because he is from poorer circumstances, June is bullied relentlessly, particularly by a clique of well-to-do students who see him as a threat. Despite his deep animosity toward its members, June longs to be in the clique and is eventually admitted, but at the cost of his soul.

What makes “Pluto” remarkable is its attention to the details of school life. The thriller elements are contrived, but the psychological one-upmanship constantly at play among students, teachers, administrators and parents is darkly, cynically compelling. The system is not just corrupted by money: It’s permeated by evil. The members of the clique will resort to anything, including sexual blackmail and murder, to get into Seoul National University.

The writer-director, Shin Su Won, knows this situation intimately. Before becoming a filmmaker she taught full-time for 10 years at a public middle school in Seoul. Over breakfast one morning during the recent Busan International Film Festival, where “Pluto” had its world premiere, she assured me that the movie is a complete work of fiction, but that the idea for it emerged from her realization that talented students tend to be left behind.

“I remember one boy who was very intelligent,” she said. “But he was from a bad home — his parents were always fighting — and over the years I saw him slowly turn into a monster. And there was another student who was really good in science — like June in the movie, he formulated his own acne medication. But he was not aggressive, and he, too, lost out to other students who were less talented.”

Teachers also get caught up in the madness. “Most of my students’ grades were low,” Shin admited. “So at teachers’ meetings the principal would always ask me why and all I could say was, ‘I don’t know.’ “

She was ground down by the system, and thought teaching was pointless since nothing she did addressed individual needs, only collective achievements. Parents bribed teachers to change grades. Shin herself once received an envelope of money from the mother of a student and she didn’t know what to do, so she used it to buy books for the whole class. In expensive cram schools there are special classes where parents receive instruction from experts to learn tips on how to manipulate the system.

The upshot is that the students who win at this game get into good universities but rarely have any idea what they want from life. “And those who fall behind,” she said, “even by a little bit, just give up. They sleep in class, and teachers hate them for it.”

Shin herself graduated from an elite university, but in mid-life, with a family to support and receiving little fulfillment from her work, she did something unusual. She went back to school to pursue her dream of making films. In the past 10 years her movies have won awards at the Cannes and Tokyo international film festivals. And “Pluto” is not a pokey little indie: It is a highly accomplished and ambitious commercial film, though Shin said she wouldn’t describe it that way. And while the movie is meant to show “the older generation” how bad things have become, she doesn’t necessarily think it will make a difference. Money and favoritism are just too pervasive.

“When I was writing the script my daughter was in high school,” Shin said, and she tried to impart on her the understanding that getting into a good school does not guarantee happiness. “But she saw other parents working hard to help their kids succeed in school and wondered, ‘Why does my mother have to be different?’”