Kim Cho-hee’s Lucky Chan-sil tells the story of Chan-sil, a 40-year-old woman who must grapple with the consequences of prioritizing her career as a film producer over societal expectations of Korean women. After unexpectedly losing her job at the start of the film, Chan-sil starts her journey of self-acceptance by confiding in the new people she meets. There’s Kim-young, a new love interest; Grandmother, her new landlady; and Gook-young, her self-imagined ghost. The film uses elements of romantic comedy and fantasy to create a realistic but lighthearted depiction of a young woman’s struggle to pursue love and ambition in Korean society.
Expectations of Korean Women in Dating
The characters in Lucky Chan-sil frequently reinforce expectations that women must prioritize marriage and raising a family. In traditional Korean society, from a young age women are taught to prepare for future roles as wives and mothers, Modern Korean women like Chan-sil have yet to escape from such standards. Despite her own professional ambitions, Chan-sil laments that she has slaved her youth away for her career. In the eyes of society, she has failed to live up to gendered expectations.
Chan-sil attempts to make up for this “failure” by pursuing love. This provides a humorous and light-hearted tone to the film to mask the sadness she feels about her career. The meet cute between Chan-sil and her love interest, Kim-young, comes at a vulnerable point in Chan-sil’s life— giving her hope despite a history of bad luck with dating. In her pursuit of love, however, Chan-sil finds herself conforming to stereotypical gender roles by prioritizing Kim-young’s interests over her own. On a date, she heatedly argues with Kim-young that she can’t understand his reasons for not liking a film that she considers to be the core of her being. Yet, the next day, she makes Kim-young lunch and pretends to mirror his likes and dislikes—throwing away the influences that make up who she is.
The tumultuous relationship between Chan-sil and Kim-young reflects the incompatibility between Chan-sil and expectations of her as a woman in a relationship. Chan-sil places her producer career above all, and is therefore not compatible with men who want a traditional wife. South Korean culture remains deeply patriarchal, where men must be the main breadwinners. Chan-sil’s willingness to date in spite of gender inequalities seems to contrast with the attitudes of many South Korean youth—a 2018 study showed that, among South Koreans who were not dating, 64% of women and 51% of men chose to remain single.
Economic Opportunities for Women
In Korea, women didn’t achieve constitutional rights for equal access to public education until 1948. Today, more than 70% of women between 25 and 34 are active in South Korea’s workforce. Despite these improvements, gender disparity continues to pressure modern young women. The remnants of Korea’s conservative past are reflected in Grandmother—a quirky landlady whom Chan-sil befriends as a confidant.
Grandmother serves as a comparison of economic opportunities for Korean women across generations. Chan-sil helps Grandmother learn to read and write, as Grandmother explains, “girls weren’t schooled in my day; made us promiscuous.” Chan-sil, on the other hand, represents the improvement in economic expectations for women, since she is able to pursue a career in a male-dominated field. The two women from two generations of Korean society confide in and support each other. By bestowing literacy, Chan-sil gives Grandmother further economic independence in being able to read her own bills. In return, Grandmother supports Chan-sil’s career by giving her access to her daughter’s film collection for inspiration. These interactions symbolize the hope that women across generations can band together to fight for equality.
Chan-sil’s Inner Voice
The final figure on Chan-sil’s journey of self discovery is Gook-young, a ghost that she hallucinates. Gook-young embodies Chan-sil’s inner voice towards her true passions—and exemplifies her hope that men would treat her as an equal. In the beginning, she sees him running around in undergarments without recognizing him. In time, Chan-sil realizes that he is a figment of her imagination—born from the bold, unapologetic, and fearless part of herself that she had suppressed. By talking with Gook-young, she discovers her true self. It’s a fitting—and rather entertaining—way to round out the repertoire of characters that help Chan-sil grapple with life as a woman in Korea.
In this time of female empowerment, some popular films show female frustrations through war-like stories like The Handmaiden, which depicts two women plotting revenge on their male tormentors.
Lucky Chan-sil makes an equally powerful message about empowerment, albeit in its own way. With its awkward but honest interactions and dialogue, Lucky Chan-sil is a humorous and candid film that doesn’t aspire to condemn gender norms in Korea. Instead, the film provides an encouraging and refreshing view of independent, career-oriented women. It shows that even though women have much to juggle, there are light-hearted ways to accept life’s struggles and continue forward.
Lucky Chan-sil (Korean: 찬실이는 복도 많지)—Dialog in Korean. South Korea. Directed by Kim Cho-hee. Running time 1hr 36min. First released March 5, 2020 in South Korean theaters. Starring Kang Mal-geum, Youn Yuh-jung, Kim Young-min, Yoon Seung-ah.
Lucky Chan-sil is available for virtual screening at the New York Asian Film Festival until September 12, 2020.