'Whiplash' strikes a chord for South Koreans at the box office

'Whiplash' strikes a chord for South Koreans at the box office
Miles Teller, left, and J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash." (Daniel McFadden, Sundance)

While watching "Whiplash," the Oscar-winning movie about an aspiring jazz drummer trained by a sadistic teacher in New York, Kaylee Kang saw potent glimpses of her own youth as a competitive dancer in South Korea.

Scenes of the film's main character, Andrew, drumming until his hands bleed brought back memories of the aching knees she developed after seven-day weeks of marathon days dancing on 31/2-inch heels.


Kang says of Andrew, "No matter what, he just kept going to satisfy his instructor. I was just like that."

"Whiplash" opened in South Korea on March 12 and has brought in $9 million at the box office, a strong total for an independent, overseas film, though far less than Hollywood blockbusters like "Interstellar", which raked in nearly $75 million in South Korea. That's still an impressive total given that the U.S. box office is only about $13 million.

In Korea, "Whiplash" is being promoted with the slogan "The frenetic, explosive drive for genius" and is resonating with moviegoers as a tale of an ambitious young person being pushed toward excellence.

South Korea has long had a reputation for pressuring young people, sometimes forcefully, to excel. In the country's Confucian traditions, a child's success or failure in life reflects on their family as a whole.

Many South Korean school boards banned corporal punishment only in the past few years. Until then, many teachers carried wooden sticks that they'd use to smack students who slacked or stepped out of line.

Echoes of these experiences appear to be part of what is drawing South Korean viewers to "Whiplash." Also, the questions raised by "Whiplash" are especially relevant in South Korea, where there's a constant discussion over what is the optimal amount of pressure to place on young people to do well.

"I think that some Koreans can associate their school lives with scenes in the movie. There are some teachers who push students in that way," said Kim Bo-kyung, an office worker in her mid-20s who saw "Whiplash" in Seoul shortly after its release.

In an online review, Lee Dong-jin, a South Korean film critic, described "Whiplash" as "An enlightening story that shows how distorted passion can ruin a person".

In "Whiplash," a band teacher uses violence and abusive language to push his students to perfect performances.

Upon arriving at a prestigious music academy, Andrew (Miles Teller), a freshman student who dreams of greatness as a jazz musician, encounters a frightening level of fierceness in his instructor, Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons in an Academy Award-winning performance, who uses violence, personal and ethnic slurs to berate the young drummer, ostensibly to motivate him to become great. (As Fletcher tells Andrew in one of the movie's most notable scenes, the ubiquitous phrase "good job" has led to widespread mediocrity.)

Kang says though none of her instructors ever lashed out at her with Fletcher's viciousness, she did everything she could to excel. "I wanted to be the hardest-working dancer, so I did everything I could. I'd stay at my academy until even after my instructor had left for the day," she says.

When training for a spot on the South Korean national team ahead of the Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010, Kang says she practiced for more than 12 hours a day, every day, in the year or so leading to the games.

Her all-out efforts did lead to success: She and her male partner won South Korea's Amateur Latin Dancesport National and several other national competitions in 2009.

For most South Korean youths, the classroom is the competitive stage. The country's education system has been commended for getting results, from admirers including President Obama, as South Korean students tend to rank highly in standardized measures of academic achievement. But kids here also regularly rank as some of the most stressed-out in the world, in part because they're pushed to spend nearly all their time hitting the books, with little free time for play.


South Korea-born World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said on a visit last year, "Students endure a substantial psychological burden from competition and long hours of work."

Some analysts have suggested that South Korea's militarization, with its harsh, hierarchical culture, has seeped into other areas of life, including education. The 1950-53 war with North Korea has never formally ended, and South Korea still maintains a large, combat-ready military, with every able-bodied male completing a mandatory term of service of about two years.

"We have nearly 50% of the population serving in the military, and that experience of authoritarianism leaves an indelible mark. Some of those soldiers go on to become teachers," said Se-Woong Koo, a lecturer at Yonsei University and editor-in-chief of Korea Expose, a website of Korea-focused reporting and analysis.

In Kang's case, this lingering militarization intruded on her dreams of dance glory when her partner had to put his dancing on hold to complete his own obligatory term of service. Without a partner, she was named a backup for the Asian Games and left off the active roster.

Disappointed, she stepped away from dance, spending a year in the U.S. studying English. She is now 26 and works for a public relations firm in Seoul.

One of the main questions of "Whiplash" is whether heavy-handed tactics are actually useful in driving talented people to fulfill their potential and whether today's culture of putting self-esteem first actually leads to unrealized talent.

In a later scene in "Whiplash," Fletcher laments a culture where he feels teachers and parents are too willing to accept mediocrity. He ruefully opines that this culture of sensitivity to hurt feelings will produce fewer virtuoso talents. He tells a story of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker having been driven to greatness after he had a cymbal thrown at him by an accomplished drummer (a story that may have played out very differently in real life).

In Fletcher's telling, the humiliating experience drove Parker to practice harder and come back again the next year with an outstanding performance.

Kang says that in hindsight she sometimes wishes her instructors had been even harder on her, that with an extra push she could have been even more successful.

"I think the desire for success can sometimes be blinding," she said.