The public education system in South Korea could be considered a microcosm of the overall country, as many of the issues and challenges facing students reflect what is going on in the rest of society. Similar to Japan, competition is fierce to get into the few universities of high standing (a situation referenced in "Marrying the Mafia"), resulting in what has been dubbed 'blood splashing', a winner-take all 'Battle Royale' in which students will sacrifice their free time, friendships, and even their health to secure a spot in a prestigious school. This is not unlike the situation faced by students once they get into the working world, where competition is fierce for jobs in an economy where youth unemployment is second highest among OECD countries. Corporal punishment and other forms of physical abuse on students are still prevalent in schools, mirroring the situation in some workplaces, where beatings are doled out by bosses and managers, such as in well-publicized abuses in the country's migrant-worker population. And similar to how corruption has stained the conduct of both politics and business in South Korea (in fact, the country consistently ranks in the middle-tier of Transparency International's annual survey of global corruption), bribing of teachers by parents to improve the grades and/or treatment of their sons and daughters is a common practice. In fact, the culture of grift is so ingrained that a recent survey of middle- and high-school students found that almost two-thirds of respondents would likely engage in such activity if they had the chance, particularly if it would advance their future careers.
Not surprisingly, the problems in South Korean schools have been reflected on the country's movie screens, both as an acknowledgement of their existence, and as a means to allegorize broader issues that face Korean society as a whole. Park Ki-hyung's horror hit "Whispering Corridors (Yeogo goedam)" was a thinly veiled attack on the Korean high school system that resulted in protests by conservative education groups. Its unrelated sequel "Memento Mori (Yeogo goedam II)" placed more emphasis on visceral chills, though it still laid bare some of the more unsavory aspects of high school life. Then there was Yun Je-gyun's "My Boss, My Hero (Doosaboo ilchae)", which fashioned a gangster comedy from an actual occurrence of corruption and scandal at a Seoul high school. Now joining the fray is "My Teacher, Mr. Kim (Seonsaeng Kim Bong-du)", a comedy that racked up some impressive admissions in the spring of 2003.
Cha Seung-won plays the titular character, Kim Bong-du, a rotten-apple teacher in Seoul. In addition to being constantly late for work and having little regard for his slovenly appearance, Bong-du is lining his pockets with bribe envelopes from parents, with the students paying the consequences in extra chores and harsher treatment if their parents refuse to pay up. Unfortunately, Bong-du's freewheeling ways are brought to an abrupt end after one of the parents complains, and he is put out to pasture at a small school in a farming community somewhere in Kangweon province.
Instead of teaching the children of well-heeled middle-class wage earners, Bong-du's new class is comprised of two boys and three girls, the only children in the entire village. And though Bong-du tries to start up his envelope scheme, he is disheartened to receive only kind letters and vegetables for his trouble. With no extra income, no entertainment, and no good shopping in his new surroundings, Bong-du quickly becomes bored out of his gourd.
However, he finds a sliver of hope when he hears that the school is scheduled to close down once all the students have transferred elsewhere. Seeing this development as his ticket out of this backwater hell, Bong-du begins brainwashing his students about the bright lights of Seoul and how they can pursue their dreams in acting, painting, or baseball there. But when it comes time to finally getting rid of the kids, Bong-du is dismayed to learn that he has managed to grow a conscience.
"My Teacher, Mr. Kim" is a step in the right direction for director Jang Gyu-seong, who had previously helmed the misleadingly titled parody film "Funny Movie (Jaemitneun yeonghwa)". In fact, the film is actually based on his own experiences growing up in the countryside, and it is evident that some of his heart and soul went into it. Jang displays some increased comic sophistication as he effectively mines the comic potential of a city slicker banished to "Harmonium in My Memory (Nae Maeumeui punggeum)" country, with a number of amusing 'fish out of water' comic set pieces dominating the film's first half, such as the difficulties Bong-du experiences while trying to buy cigarettes, or his drunken behavior during a welcoming party hosted by the villagers. However, as Bong-du sees the consequences of his egocentric actions and becomes increasingly conflicted about trying to return to Seoul early, Jang tries a little too hard in driving the point home with drawn out scenes and over-the-top dramatics, such as the film's emotionally manipulative climax where Bong-du's students weep for what seems to be an eternity.
The film is also a step forward for Cha, who moves into more dramatic territory following his appearances in a string of comedies, such as "Kick the Moon (Shinlaui dalbam)" and "Jail Breakers (Gwangbokjeol teuksa)". Complimenting Cha's good looks and deep baritone voice is a versatile performance that reveals the two sides of Bong-du's personality, the self-absorbed schemer and the caring educator, both of which come into increasing conflict as the film progresses. Cha is also ably supported by a talented cast that includes Byun Heui-bong ("Volcano High") as a seemingly standoffish mountain hermit whom Bong-du teaches how to read, Choi Min-ju as a class monitor who mediates between the students and their erratic teacher, and Sung Ji-ru as the school's abrasive janitor.
The remake and North American distribution rights for "My Teacher, Mr. Kim" were picked up by Miramax well before the film even bowed into domestic theaters, which is interesting, as it is difficult to imagine how well the corruption theme will translate for Hollywood audiences, with student-on-student violence, and not bribery, probably being the biggest issue facing North American schools. Nevertheless, in its home country, where such problems in the nation's schools are widely recognized, "My Teacher, Mr. Kim" struck a chord with audiences and earned itself a third-place ranking among the year's top-grossing homegrown productions, just behind "Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok)" and "My Tutor Friend (Donggabnaegi gwawoehagi)". And while the film could have easily have been tightened up towards the end, "My Teacher, Mr. Kim" still manages to be a charismatic and inspiring tale where a man's self-interest is transformed into a selfless devotion to his students. Director Jang is well on his way to graduating with honors.
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