According to the PISA education ranking, Korean pupils perform significantly better than most OECD students in all categories tested (namely: math, reading, and science). Yet this success comes at a steep price: the Korean school system is often described as nothing short of brutal. Its students are among the least happy and most stressed worldwide.
At the core of this system is the Suneung (수능) examination which determines university admissions. Because only a fraction of Suneung takers will ever be admitted to the best colleges, competition is fierce. Desperate to give their children an edge, parents invest in evening schools, private tutoring and bootcamps, fueling an entire industry now worth several billion dollars.
For this episode, we had the pleasure of interviewing Steven Dhoedt, who co-directed Reach for the SKY, a documentary that premiered at the 2015 Busan International Film Festival and was selected for the DOK Leipzig festival in Germany. Reach for the SKY tells the story of several students, their families and teachers, as they prepare for the dreaded Suneung.
Steven Dhoedt is a Belgian filmmaker, producer and cinematographer. He studied film at the Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound (RITCS) in Brussels and worked for several years in Hong Kong as a freelance producer and director. He founded VISUALANTICS in 2003, a Brussels-based independent production house; his films have screened in numerous festivals worldwide and have been broadcasted in over thirty countries. He is also the director of State of Play (2013), a documentary that follows several South Korean professional video gamers.
There’s one scene where [one of the students in the film] is lying on his bed at night, his dorm room buddies are asking him « so, you’re gonna go to Korea University? What kind of grades do you need for that? ». And basically he’s done the calculation, and he has realized that to get in there, he has to be in the top 0.1% percent of all the students taking that exam that year […] He’s constantly evaluating the progress that he makes […] There’s this constant stress, that if you don’t do well, you might actually fail in the exam as well. Failing of course is a very relative concept because these guys have like, 96-97 out of 100. If you would have that in Belgium, where I’m from, you’re the best student of the school. But over here, that doesn’t have to be true at all.
The interview was recorded on December 6th in Seoul.