"I feel all alone when I'm at home with my family. When I look at mum, dad and Jeong-woo they look very happy...
I feel like I'm the only one who's different, you know?..."


Bori is an 11 year old girl living with her parents and younger brother in a seaside village. While she is a fully able-bodied child, she is the only one in her household who can hear – her mum, dad and sibling all being profoundly deaf – Bori taking it upon herself to make their lives easier by conversing with others on their behalf and ordering takeaway pizza and fried chicken over the phone, and the like.
However, more and more she begins to look at the almost doting way her parents treat her brother, increasingly leaving her feeling like an outsider in her own home to the extent that she begins to wish/pray that she’ll somehow lose her hearing too. Her closest school friend soon discovers what Bori is wishing for and though she’s initially shocked she points out that if she truly wants to be deaf she needs to do something physical to help make it happen.
When Bori sees a television interview with a female diver hard of hearing because of her constant diving, shortly thereafter, she figures she’s found the means to achieve her goal of becoming deaf and finally get closer to her family...


Over the years, Korean cinema has tackled the subject of disability in a number of ways such as critiques of societal prejudice, persecution or indeed abuse from those shockingly feeling that the less than able-bodied should neither be seen, heard nor listened to (Oasis, The Peach Tree, The Crucible); discussions of the intelligence of the physical challenged, veiled so often for those who can’t (or won’t) look beyond surface physicality or visual aspects of neurological conditions (Lovable, Innocent Witness); depictions of the struggles faced by the handicapped in trying to have as normal an existence as possible (Planet of Snail); and the like. Regardless of individual narratives, social commentaries or societal critiques they contain, films of this ilk tend to put disability and disabled characters at their stories’ very centre to make the hugely important point that for the handicapped themselves disability is far from being their core, their physical or neurological issues being just a part of who they are and certainly not defining them, in spite of the close-minded's blinkered, uninformed assumptions to the contrary.

Bori (the film) does a 180 on this by showing disability from the titular, able-bodied character’s perspective. Sure, even as a very young girl, Bori is fully aware of the concept of handicap and of course realises her parents and brother are deemed disabled by society at large (by definition) but from her personal point of view, as is the case for any child in a loving family, her home life is absolute normality – nothing remarkable about it; nothing odd about it (a slight addendum to that is coming, but we’ll deal with that when we get to it). Even though her life and interactions outside and away from her home are those of a non-disabled, fully hearing person, her home life interactions with her deaf family are as they have always been and as such they feel completely ordinary to her – her conversing with her parents and brother by using sign language or writing is not even noteworthy from her perspective (whether she is consciously aware of it or not) and is certainly not considered interaction with disabled people - to her, conversations with her family simply happen in a way that allows all involved to be able to understand and be understood. Think back to your youth (or my youth) and imagine sitting in your bedroom listening to a new vinyl/DVD with headphones on. Your mum opens the door and lets you know that dinner’s ready without you needing to even take the headphones off. That’s exactly how Bori views her familial interactions – their 'headphones', if you will, are permanent but they define her loved ones no more than yours defined you in your bedroom in your younger days. As such, in telling its story of a non-disabled little girl with deaf parents (as supporting characters), Kim Jin-yu’s Bori from the very outset quietly yet deftly underlines that 'disability as an aspect, not a definition' statement throughout to easily an equal degree to Korean cinema narratives over the years focusing on the perspective of the handicapped, and that is a huge strength and plus point in its favour especially in a film so seemingly simply told, from a cursory glance.

The previously mentioned addendum to all this comes with Bori’s growing belief, in looking at the closeness between her parents and brother, that their relationship with him is warmer and more unconditional than their relationship with her. Her jealousy of that drawing her towards the idea of and the wish to become deaf herself in the hope her parents will feel closer to her underlines all of the above in terms of her perception of familial normality rather than her even considering the issue of deafness as a disability per se. In a myriad of narratives dealing with handicap, stories first point to the disability in question as an explanation of why the disabled are outwardly seen and deemed as being entirely different and separate from the able-bodied specifically (again, more often than not from disabled characters' points of view), to then gradually look below the surface to show that in terms of being human we're all the same regardless of our individual challenges. In the case of Bori (the film), making non-disabled Bori (the girl) feel that she’s the one that’s different from the rest of her (again, ordinary but deaf) family members; depicting her yearning for deafness to fit in; but ultimately showing that her hearing in no way separates her from her mum, dad and brother is a perfect inversion of this trope that, with palpable originality, nonetheless leads to the same important ultimate statement,

Setting Bori’s narrative in a seaside location easily allows for a far gentler tone than would have been the case in a bustling metropolis, the less hectically-driven lives of the villagers, and of course Bori’s family, similarly setting the pace and allowing the narrative to naturally breathe. Nothing is rushed here, nor should it be, and that works in the film’s favour to a noticeable degree with Bori’s personal arc and increasing feelings that she’s an outsider in her own home allowed to progress in a measured, unhurried manner.
The story being centred on the loves, needs, perceptions and resultant anxieties of such a young little girl (whose world by its very nature is far smaller than that of an adult) means the events taking place and driving the narrative throughout are, from a cursory glance, diminutive but director Kim Jin-yu succeeds so absolutely in eliciting viewer empathy and immersion that we are instantly, wholly aware of how vital they are to little Bori and emphatically they thereby cannot fail to become important to us as viewers, too. Even the injustices against the disabled shown (shop keepers adding money to the clothes shopping bill of Bori's mother (who they deem ‘the mute') because she can’t hear them laughing about it behind her back; Bori's talented footballer brother being dropped to substitute by his coach because he can’t hear what his teammates shout on the pitch, and indeed them only playing with him in football matches; etc) could be considered by many to be ‘passing’ (as is sadly the case in real life, their disgraceful nature made all the more insipid by that very fact) but that’s kind of the point. Able-bodied adults all too often put up with, ignore or indeed instigate prejudice against the disabled simply because from the outside they seem obviously different and/or out of place, leading to the bigoted deeming them as somehow lesser, an absolute fallacy even more glaringly shown to be so when seen through the eyes of our innocent, unprejudiced 11-year-old heroine and contrasted with her perceptions of the parents she so yearns to be more like, to be closer to them and drawn closer by them, the word disability not even entering her mind.


Always quietly spoken but nonetheless screaming of candour throughout, Kim Jin-yu’s Bori deftly inverts common disability tropes seen in Korean cinema to underline their all-important message all the more in an original, sweetly engaging and ultimately uplifting way.


BORI (나는보리) / 2018
Director: Kim Jin-yu
Cast: Kim Ah-song, Hur Ji-na, Kwag Jin-suk, Jung Yi-rang, Lee Lin-ha


This review of BORI comes as a result of the film's screening as the Closing Gala of the 2020 London Korean Film Festival.

Here is the official trailer (with English subtitles):


All images © M-Line Distribution
Review © Paul Quinn