Written by Josie Sohn, Junior Researcher ’08-09
That every Korean student is learning English is not news. What is special about Please Teach Me English (2003) is its holistic imagining of the ordinary people learning English in Korean society. In this romantic comedy, “Candy” is a local district clerk who is pressured into taking English classes because no one at the office representing the “global city” of Seoul is capable of helping English speakers. The dreadful English classes, however, become what she looks forward to when she falls for a handsome shoe salesperson, whose only interest seems to be flirting with the attractive white instructor. He has, however, a more serious reason. He is getting ready to meet his sister who was given up for overseas adoption years ago. Another student is a pizza deliverer from the countryside learning English in hopes of becoming a globetrotting chef. A perennial cram-schooler is there, too, because everyone else is. English education in this film is thus loaded with recent Korean historical baggage: rural migration, examination hell, “exporting” babies, and the IMF crisis that intensified the neoliberal globalization of Korea. English education in this perky romantic comedy is not merely a narrative prop, but rather a vehicle for the exploration of more serious subject matter in this otherwise jolly satire of a Korean society obsessed with learning English.
In 2008, two new Korean films that lampoon the very issue of English education and Korean society were released one after another. First, Our School E.T. (2008) is a youth comedy in which a high school P.E. teacher, about to be laid off, goes through the ordeal of relearning English to continue teaching as an English teacher. Less than a month later, the 13th Pusan International Film Festival premiered Crush and Blush (2008), a black comedy about a high school Russian language teacher getting demoted to (learn first and then) teach middle school English. What interests me here is how these new films both elaborate on and depart from the themes explored in the older film.
The most obvious link that connects Please Teach Me English to Our School E.T. and Crush and Blush is that the new films, like the former, portray English education in relation to other social issues. First, Our School E.T. problematizes how students, no longer the victims of unqualified teachers, have become the perpetuators of materialism.
The film features a righteous teacher (a rarity in Korean youth films) who receives “envelopes” to help poor students. All this is perhaps symptomatic of the 386-generation director’s political and ethical sensibilities. The film continues to touch on other sensitive topics such as the recent food scare over beef products and finally brings the characters back on the tracks by the end of the film. There is one catch, however. As the former gym teacher and his students prepare to run, they holler, “A strong and healthy body is the power of the country!” That is, reciting all this in English.
Crush and Blush, too, zooms in on a number of particular social issues. The superfluous Russian language teacher gets demoted because there is another Russian instructor who, unlike her, is attractive and therefore popular among students. “Miss Carrot” (for she blushes) is a bundle of inferiority complexes reflecting the widespread obsession with physical beauty in Korea. To make things worse, she is desperately in love with a male teacher who is having an affair with her rival. What she decides to do is to befriend the male teacher’s daughter, whose only source of self-assurance is the fact that her parents are not divorced like her classmates’, and together they sabotage the rival’s affair. Directed by one of a handful of women filmmakers in South Korea, the film has been often dubbed a “woman’s film.”
What is different and therefore intriguing in these new films is that the satires have become self-reflexive in the recent years. In other words, Our School E.T. and Crush and Blush do not merely point to different social issues but reckon what is at stake. In Please Teach Me English, none of the characters loses anything by learning English. Each one actually gains a greater chance at upward social mobility, a better education, family healing, or romance. What the new films suggest, on the other hand, is that the professionalization of English education exacts costs on physical education, as well as on linguistic and literary studies. To put it simply, these new Korean films no longer say, “Please teach me English.” Rather, they seem to be saying, “Please teach us English so that we can teach ourselves!”