And to think it all began as a mistake. After planning her summer around documenting the lives of young women in India, Lisa Gross ’04 had to cancel her trip at the last minute, due to political troubles in the region. Since she was already in Korea visiting her parents when she heard the news, she decided to film her first project there.
Gross’s 25-minute documentary “K-Girls” begins by stating the problems its female subjects face, then expanding on specific issues, and finally drawing to an optimistic close, with the girls commenting on their hopes education and future careers. While the film starts as an exploration of the typical anxieties of Korean girls, aged 19 to 21, in the end it provides an American audience with a strikingly familiar portrait of cultural concerns.
Gross said she felt a personal connection with the project because her mother is Korean, and her parents have lived in the country for two years. The film was Gross’s way of exploring the position of her Korean counterparts, and the ways in which their lives differed from her own.
The film begins with the three young Korean women voicing their opinions about the rigid expectations their culture places on them.
“You’ve got to do your best trying to change the conditions,” said Sara Park, the spunkiest of the group with her boyish haircut. “I’m always scared to be myself. [We are told] to be womanly — women shouldn’t be too smart. They shouldn’t be smarter than men.”
The girls are painfully objective about the assumptions Korean culture makes about a woman’s domestic, subservient position, but their objectivity seems to indicate a distance from these constraints. Unfortunately, such understanding does not free the girls from their concerns. The quest for a boyfriend, mixed with intense media presence, breeds poor self images in some Korean girls. The girls seem just as inundated with images of supposedly ideal women as girls in the United States, if not more so. While they themselves seem confident — even one who speaks objectively about her weight problems — the girls admitted that the concept of beauty is very standardized.
The three interviews are strung together well, in logical order, and the girls’ concerns don’t seem so far removed from the fears of any American teenager. The film is well-done and seemingly professional, and the spots are interspersed with shots of Korean media, ubiquitous advertisements and other young women who bring the ads to life, demonstrating the values communicated through the interviews.
The film ends on an optimistic note, with Park demonstrating her ambition for a career in science despite the circumscribed expectations for Korean women.
“One reason I study natural science is that it is traditionally a man’s science — I should be a role model for more women coming,” she said.
Gross complements the film with a five minute short that draws distinctions between the generations in Korea, through the medium of rock music. The piece combines shots of traditional Korean female dance and an underground rock group led by a Korean Sinead O’Connor. Running like a music video, dark, gritty shots of a female guitarist are mixed with make-up covered, bright, smiling images of Korean culture.
The generational gap and subtly feminist message is clear, and a great start for Gross. She hopes to put her grants and fellowships to work this spring or next summer to travel to India to complete her second documentary.