In the winter of 2018, writer-director Kim Bo-ram began planning A Table For Two, a documentary about the growing prevalence of eating disorders in South Korea. She sifted through data, conducted interviews and eventually chose to focus her film on one mother and daughter.
“By 2019, I had already interviewed 15 women and made some progress with the project when the school where the mother worked asked for permission to screen my previous documentary film, For Vagina’s Sake, there,” said Kim. “After the screening, there was a Q&A session, and someone in the audience asked me about new projects I was working on. I shared that I was working on a documentary about eating disorders. When the event was over, Ms. Park Sang-ok, the vice-principal, followed me to the parking lot and told me that her daughter had been suffering from an eating disorder for over a decade. Her eyes and voice left a lasting impression on me, and that’s how I first met them.”
When Park Sang-ok’s daughter, Chae-young, was a teen she was diagnosed with anorexia. Her mother brought her to a hospital for treatment and there Chae-young decided she would resume eating but then throw up. Becoming bulimic allowed her to maintain a sense of control.
Viewers first meet Chae-young a decade after her hospitalization as she’s preparing to go work in Australia. As they’re saying goodbye, her mother can’t help but urge her to stay healthy, something Chae-young hates to hear. It might be a normal thing to say to a child moving far away but given their history the request evokes complicated feelings. The film continues when Chae-young returns home during the pandemic. While she was in Australia, she spent some time cooking and worked in a restaurant. Mother and daughter found it easier have conversations about food.
“I started filming in the winter of 2018 with the intention of creating a general documentary,” said Kim. “However, when I started capturing the lives of the mother and daughter in July 2019, the documentary’s focus shifted from eating disorders to their compelling mother-daughter story. The filming continued until February 2021.”
Since food is such an integral part of mother-child interactions, it might be tempting to blame a mother for a daughter’s complicated relationship with food. When Chae-young was little, her mother struggled to make ends meet, to put food on the table, and had little time to spend with her daughter. The experience did affect Chae-young, but eating disorders are complicated.
“It was traumatic for the daughter to be left alone as a child in a situation she had no control over,” said Kim. “The Body Keeps the Score, a book by Bessel van der Kolk, confirms the relationship between eating disorders and trauma, and many experts see this problem as a symptom of complex trauma. I thought Sang-ok and Chae-young’s circumstances were shaped by the dynamics between multiple elements, such as South Korea’s political and economic situation in the early 90s, the environment in which a single mother had to raise a child, and the traces of abuse and oppression experienced by the two women as well as the grandmother in a world of formidable patriarchy. These issues aren’t explicitly depicted in the film, and I didn’t believe it was necessary to deliberately explain them. The Korean audience can understand this deleted context, for these problems are very Korean.”
Later in the film viewers learn that Sang-ok’s mother also had bulimia. There might be a genetic component, but Kim cautions that the grandmother’s bulimia also existed within a social context. In 1980s Korea, a woman who only had daughters experienced unimaginable abuse and oppression within her marital family. It’s something, she said, that might be hard for a foreign viewer to fully grasp.
“Living under such patriarchal oppression, the grandmother was in immense distress with nowhere to turn,” she said. “I believe she intentionally vomited as a way to cope with her unbearable circumstances. If Chae-young inherited anything, I think it must be the memories of abuse and oppression.”
Before meeting Chae-young and Sang-ok, Kim thought eating disorders could be cured by overcoming issues related to dieting, the prevalent culture of the “plastic surgery republic” and lookism.
“At that time, I viewed this issue as a matter of personal choice,” said Kim. “However, after getting to know them, I realized that there is no such simple solution to this complex problem. What happens within an individual’s body is a result of intricate dynamics that encompass society, history, politics, culture, and everything else they are a part of, including their families. Both of them have constantly pondered, questioned, and waited in a family where something incomprehensible has occurred. Through their attitudes, I learned more about living without compromising human dignity than I did about eating disorders.”
The notion that “thin is beautiful” is not insignificant.
“However, not all people who try to lose weight because they think thinness is beautiful ‘slip into’ (as experts often point out) eating disorders,” she said. “The constant exposure to media and social media, combined with the easy accessibility of junk food, is closely linked to the prevalence of bulimia. In a society that promotes competition and fosters a social climate where people believe everyone is unique and capable of achieving something, individuals often experience immense pressure to prove their worth. This pressure eventually compels people in uncontrollable circumstances to exert control over their bodies.”
Kim hopes her film will make people less eager to judge.
“We live in a world where people easily pass judgment on others,” said Kim.” In Korea, eating disorders, in particular, are often ridiculed and feared. I want to convey to those who watch this film that it’s not easy to make hasty judgments about the world’s problems. Behind every incident, there is a context that traces back to our ancestors.”
She also wants people to consider the problem in a social context.
“I want people to focus on the patriarchal abuse endured by three generations of women in South Korea,” said Kim. “Throughout the past year, as we traveled to different film festivals in Korea, we shared moments of laughter and tears. The film is now showing in theaters, allowing us to meet various people and engage in meaningful conversations.
Table for Two is currently airing in the Women’s Voices section of the London Korean Film Festival.