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[New on the scene] ‘FAQ’ creatively responds to S. Korea’s private education obsession

By Kim Da-sol

Published : April 5, 2024 - 15:50

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Director Kim Da-min (Pancinema) Director Kim Da-min (Pancinema)

Despite having never attended a "hagwon" or private cram school herself, director Kim Da-min's debut film, "FAQ," confronts the topic of South Korea's obsession with private education, centering on the story of Dong-chun, an 11-year-old girl.

The film's English title doesn’t fully convey its creative and witty yet powerful spirit as well as its Korean title does: “Makgeolli will let you know” (direct translation). Makgeolli is Korean traditional rice wine.

“I think I would prefer to translate the movie’s title to ‘Makgeolli knows…’ with three dots, like the phrase, ‘God knows…,’” director Kim said during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on April 3.

“FAQ,” released in local theaters on Feb. 28, has gained a lot of traction, especially among online discussion forums for mothers.

“I read some comments on an internet forum for moms and saw the audience's reactions during a (post-screening talk). One of my friends told me that she and her husband fought after watching this movie due to their differing views on education," Kim said.

In “FAQ,” Dong-chun is only a fourth grader in elementary school, but her mother, Hye-jin (Park Hyo-joo), is eager to send her to cram schools to help her eventually get into a prestigious university in Korea.

Without clearly knowing the reasons why she has to go and learn things like the Persian language, Dong-chun leaves on a school trip, where she stumbles upon a bottle of makgeolli. After transferring the liquor into her juice bottle, Dong-chun brings the bottle home only to learn that the liquor speaks to her through Morse code as it ferments and emits gas. And the only language she needs to interpret the makgeolli? Persian.

Throughout this unexpected and imaginative storyline, Kim wanted to explore the role of school in young people's lives.

“I wanted to tell coming-of-age stories of younger generations and their questions about life. ... If adults tell them that it’s for them to go to a good university, that seems like a very minor goal when you look at one’s life (overall). So are these things that we are doing as students all worth it? How do such efforts pay off in the end and become worth it?” Kim said.

As a daughter born and raised under parents with an atmosphere of freedom, Kim went to a high school for animation in Seoul where she didn’t need to wear a school uniform or conform to a strict hairstyle code like average schools here. There, she explored the world of cinema and animation, while those of her age in other schools suffered through South Korea’s grueling private education system.

“Although I went to a less popular school, I was lucky to enter one of the country’s top three universities through what are called 'nonscheduled admissions.' In university, I met so many friends who took the college entrance exam two or three times just to get into this school, but who then felt lost after achieving that goal,” Kim said, adding that she didn’t want other young students to have to go the same route as the main character in the movie.

“FAQ” (Pancinema) “FAQ” (Pancinema)

When asked where this unlikely combination of makgeolli, Persian and even the country girl-esque name, Dong-chun, came from, Kim said that all of these elements are from her own experience.

“In between my personal projects participating in film productions as an assistant, I had some spare time and decided to take mini classes at community centers. Making makgeolli and learning Persian were part of the classes I took. 'Dong-chun' comes from where the center is located, Dongchun-dong,” Kim said.

Kim, who has also recently participated in screenwriting for the hit Netflix series “A Killer Paradox,” said she plans to focus on writing her own work for the time being.

“All I did was write for them. It was very thrilling that I got paid for just writing,” she said, laughing. “In Korea, a director is required to write her own work, so I’m trying to stick to what I can do and should do as a director,” said Kim.

“FAQ” is currently being screened in local theaters.

This article is the 18th in a series that introduces Korea’s new and emerging actors and directors. -- Ed.