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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Reach for the SKY"

2016/06/11 | 1760 views | Permalink

In South Korea, education is a pretty big deal. Getting into a good college can be seen as the make it or break it moment that defines an entire lifetime. "Reach For The SKY" is a documentary that explores the lives of three families with college age kids who try and hope for a positive outcome in the days leading up to the College Scholastic Ability Test. Though all hope for entry into one of the SKY schools (Seoul National University, Korea University, Yonsei University), in the end the fatigue of the process makes them willing to settle for just about anything.

That's the main building tension in "Reach For The SKY". How over the year leading up to the test the stress builds and builds until eventually everyone is just relieved that the whole experience is over with. Students who initially "Reach For The SKY" frequently end up satisfied if they're able to get into any school at all, and for good reason. In this modern economy failure to do well on the CSAT just dooms a person to try again next year.

Tonally "Reach For The SKY" is pretty effective in terms of demonstrating just what it's like living a year trying to get into a good school. It's something anyone who has done test prep work for college can relate to, even if most other countries don't have as extreme an educational system as South Korea. Unfortunately that's where my main issue with the documentary lies- the way it presents the South Korean focus on education as being somehow special or peculiar.

In my country, the United States, college degrees are now practically mandatory, and we have a whole underclass of young people stuck with zero employment prospects because they didn't take their education seriously enough. So when "Reach For The SKY" shows me a stadium packed with students having come to watch a lecture, or gets into the financial market involved in test prep, or showcases religious counsel in tandem with educational advice, I don't think "how strange" I think "good on these kids for actually knowing how serious this is".

There's this very unfortunate foreign gaze when it comes to the South Korean educational system that frequently peeks out from "Reach For The SKY". Unusual trivialties are emphasized over hard facts and similarities to the rest of the world. There's no sense of context. There's old seventies news footage of people talking about why education is important but the explanation as to why (the international economy we're all stuck in) is never seriously addressed.

But these are all problems I notice mainly as an irritated person who can easily find English-language articles blaming the Korean educational system for Sewol yet nary a word save for my own when it comes to cultural rebels like those found in "The Disobeying Teachers". With "Reach For The SKY", the best target audience is oddly enough young Koreans, who will find a lot to emphasize with and are unlikely to recognize the white noise a documentary like "Reach For The SKY" creates in the English language sphere.

Review by William Schwartz

"Reach For The SKY" is directed by Choi Woo-young and Steven Dhoedt

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