The last few BIFFs have each afforded us one great documentary (Non-Fiction Diary, Factory Complex), and 2015 proves to be no exception with the discovery of the timely Reach for the SKY, a compelling look at a common but disastrous problem at the root of modern Korean society - competitive education. Constructed like a thriller and featuring a taut and ominous mise-en-scene, this joint production between Korea and Belgium is gripping from the start and builds to a devastating climax.
SKY, akin to the Ivy League or University of California college networks in the United States, alludes to the three most prestigious universities in Korea: Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University. This documentary follows a year in the life of a few high school students (and one repeater) as they furiously prepare to take the dreaded Suneung, or college entrance exam. Facing an enormous amount of pressure from family, faculty and society, these youths, just like thousands across the country, spend countless hours losing sleep over their studies.
With its construction, which separates sequences with a looming countdown clock and features a brooding soundtrack reminiscent of Trent Reznor's work on The Social Network, Reach for the SKY ratchets up tension from the get-go, building to a crescendo of nerves on the eve and then morning of the exams, offering a loaded moment of calm as countless family members creep up hills in the faint pre-dawn light around Seoul to pray for the good fortune of their progeny at austere buddhist temples.
Reach for the SKY tackles one of the biggest problems in Korea, an issue that plagues the nation and affects almost every person, particularly in their formative years. The highly competitive nature of education in the country, and all or nothing importance of getting into certain schools, drives many youths to the edge, with some committing suicide around exam or result time, and it also robs them of their childhood, as they remain confined to halls, classrooms and study desks from dawn until late at night, never coming up for air.
Students are taught that they have to be the best, that they must constantly strive to beat anyone else who may get in their way. In one scene, this phenomenon is succinctly expressed as the camera pans up, following a balloon released into the air, as a student narrates, speaking of his desire to rise high through the education system and to continually rise above his peers.
However, co-directors Choi Woo-young and Steven Dhoedt refrain from being wholly pessimistic. Though sometimes misguided, family members care for each other deeply, and, come exam day, the whole nation comes together to support the thousands of youths (hopefully) taking their first major step into adulthood. On the day, stock markets open late, transit increases to diminish traffic jams, and airplanes are even grounded during listening exams. Reach for the SKY demonstrates an incredible community spirit where everyone comes together in support of the students, from the media, to the police, to anyone offering them a lift to their exam sites.
But the lingering taste is very much a bitter one. Credulous youths flock in their thousands for guidance from rock star English teacher Kim Ki-hoon, a charlatan making millions off scared teens (or rather their parents) whose approach to his trade brings to mind the evangelical leaders of Korea's megachurches. Repeat academy instructors repeat their mantras, indoctrinating their charges: 'Your head becomes clean as you study,' 'You feel good when you study.' Priests insist that prayers will lead to higher scores.
The pressure is on and Reach for the SKY effortlessly demonstrates how taxing it all is for Korea's youths.