How the South Koreans "Reach for the SKY"

The stock market opens an hour laterPlanes are groundedAnd police makes sure every student gets to school on time
    Reach for the SKY

South Korean students have studied their whole life for this: The College Scholastic Ability Test, or more commonly referred to as suneung. The entire nation comes to a standstill (quite literally) every second Thursday of November, when more than half a million high school students take this 8-hour long multiple-choice exam that will “make or break their futures”.

This sounds way too intense for a multiple choice exam, even if the standardized test is used to determine which university one goes to.

That’s where “Reach for the SKY” fills in the gaps. A compelling documentary that takes a hard look at the suneung phenomenon, the film premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in 2015 and was curated by Objectifs under their “Stories That Matter” programme earlier this year.

Co-directed by Steven Dhoedt and Wooyoung Choi, the Belgium-South Korean production follows the lives of suneung first-timer Hye-In, retakers Hyunha and Min-Jun, as well as celebrity English tutor Kim-Ki Hoon. By exposing the arduous preparatory period leading up to D-Day itself, Dhoedt and Choi retains a highly evaluative stance towards Korean society and the exam.

Studying becomes a mechanical affair, especially at the Sparta-like boarding school Min-Jun attends. Strict routine is enforced by discipline masters. The students start the morning off with a military-inspired role call and Physical Training, before shuffling off to the various labs and classrooms after breakfast. Studying through the night is popular and strongly encouraged. If teachers aren’t available, students can access online material that ensures learning 24/7. Everyone toils away, but it is uncertain whether their laboring translates into results. Being away from home, from friends and family and the normalcy of civilization—to a bystander, that seems like a heavy price to pay for something that will ultimately just be a piece of paper.

In a chilling scene, a teacher takes positive visualization to the extreme. He drones on in the darkened classroom, while everyone soaks in their visualized ideals of D-Day. From their earnest expressions, you can tell that this is a dream that has provided them peace and respite amidst the studying and stress. In this moment of silence, they find their purpose to study for the rest of the day and the morrow.
One of the more peculiar revelations in the film is the omnipresence of religion and superstition towards the exam. As the exam closes in, parents—mothers especially—and students turn to the divine. They become regulars at temples and churches. The fervent prayers of parents last from dusk to dawn, in the hopes that the higher power would bless their children with easy questions and perfect grades. Rain or shine, day or night. There is nothing the parents wouldn’t do for their children.

There is nothing they wouldn’t believe in either. Early on in the film, Hyunha visits a fortune teller with her mother, hoping for a peek into her future. The fortune teller asks them to pick out a flag. She nods approvingly at the chosen colour. “Study hard, and you will be a teacher,” she tells Hyunha. “It is in your fortune.” Hyunha and her mother doesn’t question. With their path now a little brighter, they march on.

In this Korean thirst for excellence, the likes of suneung “master” Kim Ki-Hoon are worshipped like Gods. Glassy-eyed students and determined parents are placing their money and faith in private education. And it isn’t so much education as it is a private corporation. Fancy videos, extravagant stage sets and big indoor arenas—it is almost as if tutoring has become a glorified motivational performance that doubles as a money-sucking machine. The desperate become the willing consumers of this multi-million franchise and society makes sure that there’s a fresh batch every year. Has this gone too far?

Most of “Reach for the SKY” presents a shocking case of South Korean society. To become the top 1% of the country admitted into the prestigious SKY universities, students are willing to sit through this limbo of stress and depression again if it means that they will emerge victorious in the next suneung exam. The silver lining is that they are not alone. The entire nation is mobilized in this paper chase. On the days leading up to the exam, crowds of juniors and teachers and even strangers would stand at the gates and cheer for the go-sam seniors who will be taking the exam for the first-time. Although not shown in the film, Korean stars have been known to encourage these exam takers through social media and fan club pages. It is one thing to go to war a lone soldier, but another to be sent off like a champion.

The suneung phenomenon isn’t an unfamiliar situation. In The Straits Times article on private tuition in Singapore, Associate Professor Jason Tan from the National Institute of Education observes that “parents see the PSLE as a high-stakes exam, as it will decide the secondary schools and academic streams that their children will enter”. 7 in 10 parents send their children for tuition even if they know that it won’t help them significantly. In 2014, AsiaOne reported that $1 billion is spent on tuition between October 2012 and September 2013, up from the $650 million spent a decade ago. Extremes in education is a timeless issue that plagues the region, along with tiger mothers and impossible standards set by Asian society.

“Reach for the SKY” not only illuminates the nail-biting situation in South Korea, but reminds the region as a whole that “no matter how important education might be, it should never be at the cost of self-development of the child”, as put forth by the directors in their statement. Perhaps through this thought-provoking documentary, through conversation and discourse, change in the system will come.

Written by Leck Choon Ling
Trailer for "Reach for the SKY":

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