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Understanding K-Drama: Bullying In Schools

BY Julie Jones | Apr 15, 2015 11:51 AM EDT

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Angry Mom

In the drama “Angry Mom” Kim Hee Sun plays a mom so desperate to protect her child from bullying that she enrolls at her school pretending to be a student. Her character Jo Kang Ja is the mom every timid kid wants. She’s tough enough to protect her own or at least bloody some noses while trying to. But that’s because she was a bully when she went to school. She demanded respect.

But when Jo Kang Ja tries to protect her daughter, she comes up against a terrifying network of power and influence that prevents her from achieving justice, at least right away.

“Angry Mom” is only the latest k-drama or k-film to focus on bullying. The topic plays a role overtly in dramas such as “Boys Over Flowers” and “School 2013” and to a lesser degree in dramas such as “The Heirs” and “Dream High.” It also plays a role in films such as the award-winning “Elegant Lies,” where bullying leads a student to commit suicide.

This may lead k-drama fans to wonder if the dramas reflect a real problem in Korean schools or exaggerate it. Bullying is a problem in schools everywhere, but why is it portrayed so often in k-dramas and k-movies?

Simon and Martina of the site Eat Your Kimchi touched on the subject in a 2012 segment titled “Bullying in South Korea.” They spoke about their own experience as English language teachers and the experiences of other teachers they know.

The former teachers pointed out that the problem may be intensified because students spend up to 10 hours a day with their classmates. Students who are in the same homeroom spend the whole school day together and often attend the same study groups. Spending so much time together creates a small world with its own rules and pecking order. Gu Jun Pyo’s word was law in “Boys Over Flowers” and no one dared to fight him before Geum Jan Di.

EYK also mentioned three types of bullying. The first is shunning, in which no one speaks to a student and that shunning can last for years or travel with a student if he or she transfers. The second is physical violence. In the third kind, bullied students become the ones who carry other students’ bags and run their errands. That type of bullying was featured in “Fool’s Love” Choi Woo Sik played Ho Gu. During his student days Ho Gu was known as “bread shuttle,” because he ran errands for the powerful kids, mostly getting them bread.

Reporting a case of bullying is also not easy. Korean schools don’t have guidance counselors that students can report to and students may be reluctant to speak up. Teachers who report bullying to their superiors, as Ji Hyun Woo’s character does in “Angry Mom,” may get yelled at by parents and their school superiors rather than be commended for seeking justice.

The subject is often portrayed in dramas and films because it is an important one that many people are concerned about.

At the press conference for “Angry Mom,” Kim Hee Sun said she took the role because she recognized the importance of the subject matter.

"I know that bullying takes place, even in kindergarten where there's not necessarily any violence, but certain kids are pushed aside as outcasts," said Kim. "I can very much empathize with Jo Kang Ja and I believe all mothers around the world would feel the same," said Kim Hee Sun.

You can see Simon and Martina’s segment on bullying here:

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