Amongst the host of Korean independent films that premiered at the 20th Busan International Film Festival earlier this year, documentary Reach For The Sky was certainly the most well-received by critics and audiences alike. Co-directed by Steven Dhoedt and Woo-young Choi, Reach For The Sky offered an extremely revealing insight into the lives of teenagers preparing to take the infamous ‘Suneung’ test; an arduous national examination that dictates which university they can attend, and for many, determines their future prospects long after graduation.
Groove Korea was fortunate enough to be granted an interview with director Dhoedt, one of the creative masterminds behind the film, who claims his interest in the subject peaked while filming pro-gaming documentary State of Play. “It struck me that many of these young players told me they became or wanted to become a professional gamer because they wanted to escape the school system,” explained Dhoedt, “which was quite an amazing statement, because the lives of these professional gamers in Seoul are pretty tough and very competitive. So I asked myself: ‘why would they want to trade in their school life for this?’”
With his curiosity burgeoning, Dhoedt met with Choi Woo-young through a mutual friend and the pair hit it off immediately sharing their facets of interest in the Korean education system. While Choi’s Boda Media Group generated roughly half the required budget, Dhoedt also raised funds through his Belgium-based company Visualantics, with additional support arriving from the Seoul Film Commission, the Korean Communication Agency and National Geographic Korea.
While pre-production began in winter 2011, various setbacks and delays resulted in the shooting period an incredible four years, serendipitously enabling the co-directors to film events across three Suneung examinations in 2012, 2013, and 2014, respectively.
Such perseverance throughout the lengthy production resulted in an acclaimed premiere at BIFF and a nationwide release in cinemas just two weeks after the exam, and director Dhoedt kindly agreed to field some questions about his latest project.
GK (Groove Korea): How difficult was it to film Reach for the SKY?
SD (Steven Dhoedt): When making a film like this, you have to be really close to your characters; in this case the students taking the Suneung exam. They are the ones who are telling the story and to do that, you have to be with them for a long time and you have to be present on some very important and intimate occasions. So that’s not to be taken for granted. Perhaps the hardest part was to get the permission of the private institutions. This took us more than a year and it was also the reason why we decided to extend the production from 2013 to 2014 and shoot another Suneung exam. I really wanted to film in a private boarding school, because this type of study boot camp is such a strange concept. It really sums up the level of commitment that students and parents are willing to put in to get to a good university. It totally embodies the academic craze you find in the Korean education system.
GK: What prompted you to explore the Suneung exam as a cultural phenomena?
SD: With State of Play, I wanted to show certain aspects of Korean culture and society through the phenomenon of ProGaming or eSports. With Reach For The SKY, I wanted to build on that further, this time by showing Korea through its education system. The phenomena are merely a hook to delve into the psychology of a culture. Through the film, I wanted non-Korean audiences to have a better understanding of the society and the culture. More importantly, I wanted them to be able to identify with it more, to relate to what the characters go through. And at the same time, I wanted a Korean audience to be able to look at the film and reflect on their own cultural identity.
GK: You chose to explore the lives of several students taking the exam, although the documentary primarily focuses on two students who are retaking it. Why did you opt for this approach?
SD: Because the private education sector in Korea is rather unique and this is what sets it aside from other countries. Also, many people can relate to a high school student sitting for a final exam. But few people know what life is like inside these private institutions. As far as I know – and I might be wrong – it’s the first time a film crew was able to go inside these boarding schools.
GK: You incorporate footage of individuals, organizations and religious institutions profiteering from the Suneung exam. Why did you feel this was necessary to include?
SD: Because more than anything, education has become a huge business, encompassing all aspects of society. It seems that everybody wants to have a piece of the cake. At the center are the parents and the students. Many of them are lost in this amazingly complicated system of tests and university applications. So there is a huge demand for guidance, for someone to provide support, be it practically or spiritually. And that obviously comes at a cost. The online providers like Megastudy, the hagwons, the freelance tutors, but also the churches, the Buddhist temples, the shamans; they know there is this demand so they have merely grabbed an existing opportunity. But I don’t believe it’s all about profiteering. Many private teachers genuinely care about their students. Many consultants do provide meaningful information about this maze of application methods. But in the end, it’s just supply and demand. The root of the problem remains with society – parents, students, employers, teachers – putting so much importance on academic achievement and on the hierarchy of universities.
GK: Throughout Reach for the SKY, parents and teachers are typically more critical than supportive. Do you think there’s a generational gap regarding education in contemporary Korea?
SD: Yes, there definitely is. That’s why there’s no short term solution. I believe things can change with the younger generations. For many Korean students these days, SKY signifies an old concept. SKY doesn’t have the same meaning anymore as it did a decade ago. People are starting to see what is wrong with the system. Getting into a SKY university is also not as important anymore as it used to be. Teenagers are also coming to terms with the fact that there are plenty of other possibilities to have a meaningful or successful life. Very often, it’s still the parents’ generation who hangs on to the old concept. So the meaning of SKY is very much a generation thing.
GK: While making the documentary, were you shocked at any point by what you discovered and/or witnessed?
SD: I didn’t think what I witnessed whilst making this film was particularly shocking, but it was definitely astounding in many ways. To have the Olympic stadium packed with students listening to the annual Megastudy conference was astounding. To have parents pay over 2000 euro a month for private tutoring for their child was astounding. To repeat 3 times over and take the exam (and basically sacrifice several years of your life) just to get in to a better university, is astounding. To have a celebrity teacher making 4 million USD a year teaching English and publishing text books was astounding. To have a private tutoring company listed on the stock market was astounding. But none of it is ridiculous, if you understand the context. And somehow, I hope that’s what this film can show.
GK: Were there any scenes or issues relating to the Suneung exam that you would have liked to included, but were unable to?
SD: You know those teachers who are taken out of school every year and assigned to draft the questions for the exam? They are locked up in a hotel somewhere, disconnected from the outside world and need to prepare the questions under the utmost secrecy. That could have made a great scene, but it was too difficult to arrange.
Reach For The SKY will be screened at the 40th Seoul Independent Film Festival (SIFF), which runs from November 27th – December 5th.