The film Permission to Exist releases December of this year, into a pop culture climate where documentary films and miniseries are bingeably popular, but its journey to screen traces far back, to a time before Tiger King and the Fyre Festival. An independent, crowdsourced production directed by Kelley Katzenmeyer, this broad look at the human cost of South Korea’s intense education system has a personal touch and an empathetic eye, but loses narrative momentum in its hard balance of styles and subjects. Katzenmeyer introduces herself within the film early as a Korean exchange student dating a boy named Dabin who’s under extreme pressure to rate a perfect score on the national exam and gain access to a prestigious university. Though she keeps the focus of the story on others, her presence is felt as a curious outsider making sense of a foreign concept for the rest of us. If you’re interested in Korean culture, Permission to Exist is a no-brainer, a definitive film document on the subject to stand alone should Netflix or Hulu one day replicate it, because of the director’s unique perspective.
Granted, I do wish that perspective was more extant in the narrative, though certainly self-insertion can sink an otherwise good documentary, like what I remember of that British fellow in the film Biggie and Tupac. No ego here distracts from the hardest-hitting points, which trade between psychological (themes of suicide bookend the story) and sociological, with one observation made in the comparison between the school system and K-beauty, that with such a narrow model of success, people are competing to end up the same. These are moving and thought-provoking moments, and the film employs a number of techniques to reach them — there’s time lapse, animation, dramatic reenactments which become musical sequences, along with the expected B-roll of classrooms, halls, and students messing around in and out of their interviews. Functionally, there won’t be a 100% success rate for each of these approaches, and for my part, I found the conventional talking heads the most affecting.
I’ll emphasize that this is a broad look, across interviews with students, parents, and teachers, as well as adult professionals and other commentators, with interesting exposition as a result. One student discusses how he met a girl he liked but felt he could only tell his mother once he got into a good college — that he dated a girl in high school. The portrait that emerges is of a bizarre society-wide conspiracy, where the kids are saying, “It’s so important where you go to college, it’s all that matters,” and the adults say, “Yes, that’s true,” approvingly or disapprovingly, where private education is common and the police escort students who are running late to the exams. The question that comes next isn’t outright stated in the text, but it’s irresistible: “Why?” And Katzenmeyer provides an answer in interviews with the people who lived during the impoverished postwar period, when dreams were born of a better life for the next generation.
The documentary identifies a problem in society but never conjures individual actors for blame. This is an accident, a legacy of international geopolitics and generational bureaucracy which has had unforeseen consequence — internalization — on young people who simply come to feel “inadequate,” as put by journalist Se-Woong Koo, interviewed in the film. The heartbreaking glimpse at this society remains just that; perhaps against the risk of ethnocentrism, there is no judgment, but unfortunately, not much of an argument being made at all. While Katzenmeyer has a personal stake in the events which unfold in the months and then days leading up to Dabin’s second go at the exam, her restraint actually releases the emotional throughline of the story to its dutiful society-wide tour. It’s bent or lost along the way, and the final product might feel detached — but for those musical interludes which are certainly stylish, a possible allusion to the K-pop and K-drama whose influence on students’ lives is inescapable.
Permission to Exist is most accurately described as a documentary-musical, maybe being the genre’s first example, and this is a stylistic choice I expect will polarize viewers. As a break from traditional documentary language, it’s a novel attempt at capturing the headspace of students under pressure, but with very literal lyrics playing over deliberate choreo (for the record, there’s no lip-syncing), I’m more interested in the film’s other areas. Thankful, even, to see, for example, footage from the ground during those moments right before the exams, when students gather to cheer on their seniors and sing “school theme songs,” and of course, say “Fighting!” Cute, yes, but knowing the stakes, it’s almost nauseatingly suspenseful, invoking every fluttering butterfly you’ve ever felt in anticipation of something bad. This is the strength of the documentary, even generally speaking, the laying of groundwork — of human context — to appreciate the universality in otherwise foreign subjects. In the end, we’re left with an incredible tale of survival. Students look back at their experiences with suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts, and they’re able to smile about it. I think it’s important for everyone, and especially South Korean students today, to see those smiles.
Permission to Exist releases December 3rd on streaming platforms
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