It’s Something to Be Celebrated, Isn’t It?

in 41st Torino International Film Festival

by Harri Römpötti

All is fine in the household of Jay (Han Hae-in) and her boyfriend Geonwoo (Lee Han-ju). She’s a successful writer getting praise for the manuscript of her second novel, following a well received debut. He’s an English teacher supporting her artistic endeavors.

That’s the premise of Birth (Naui pituseongi yeonin, South Korea 2022) by Yoo Ji-young, the winner of the FIPRESCI award at the 41st Torino Film Festival.

Jay and Geonwoo are modern and urban young adults, living together without worrying about the institution of marriage. They’ve agreed to not have kids. Jay’s more successful while Geonwoo gladly enables her to focus on writing.

Their idyll starts to crack when Jay finds out she’s pregnant.

Not having babies is not uncommon in South Korea, the country with the lowest fertility rate in the world. A clash of traditional and contemporary values is seen as a big reason for the diminishing population. It’s almost impossible for women to combine work and family in a society where, predominantly, men make careers working very long days.

In most cases, children anchor women at home. Women also often take care of both their own and the husband’s aging parents. Very high living expenses cool down urges to procreate too.

These days South Korean women choose work over babies more and more often. Jay, too, has made that choice. Ambitiously, she’s pursuing an artistic career. As a modern man, Geonwoo has agreed.

With the two main characters, writer-director Yoo Ji-young has made an efficient microcosm, even a petri dish, of social mores and values. The ambivalence of Jay’s situation is nicely encapsulated in a friend’s remark upon hearing about the pregnancy: “It’s something to be celebrated, isn’t it?”

For Jay it’s not. Pregnancy immediately begins to limit her life. Drinking’s first to go. Looming a few months away is the change from keyboard to nappies, and the end—at least for several years—of the writing career.

Geonwoo, on the other hand, would welcome the baby. However, he’s not the baddie of the story. Yoo Ji-young is too talented to write such simple characters. Nor is Jay a clear hero figure. Her weaknesses become notable.

Birth is Yoo Ji-young’s (b. 1984) second feature-length fiction movie. Before the FIPRESCI award it won the main prize of the Proxima competition at the Karlovy Vary IFF. She previously won domestic awards for her short movies.

The theme of changing family values is reminiscent of the Japanese master Yasujirō Ozu’s classics like Tokyo Story (1953). And the precise composition of the images and mostly serene pace of Birth suggest that Yoo Ji-young is a descendant of Ozu.

These times are different from Ozu’s. In Tokyo Story the ties between the then-young generation of baby boomers and their parents’ generation were getting undone. Birth describes how the flow of generations threatens to cease altogether. Are these phases of the same tendency that’s been progressing for decades, ever since the Second World War?

South Korea may be the most extreme example of the current development but in most of the industrialized world the shaking population pyramids cause worry for declining age dependency ratios. The ever-scarcer working age generations are burdened by constantly growing numbers of elders.

Yoo Ji-young’s point of view is individual and sharply feminist. She doesn’t seek to map the socioeconomic landscape but rather take a look at women’s place in it, through the fate of Jay. But that actually is at the heart of the matter. Larger issues can hardly be solved without creating more equal circumstances. That alone, of course, is a large enough issue—has been for too many decades.

Harri Römpötti
Edited by Robert Horton