Review: Reach for the SKY (South Korea/Belgium, 2016)

An empathetic, intimate documentary that chronicles students taking the Suneung, South Korea's all-important college entrance exam.

By , 5 Oct 16 09:12 GMT

This documentary is currently available for VOD streaming.

When I was applying for US colleges, a convenient moniker summed my aspirations: HYPS, short for Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. If you’re shooting for elite schools with <10% acceptance rates, going through the American college applications process isn’t fun. However, it could be worse. As some of my Korean-American friends helpfully enlightened me in high school, Korean students also have a catchy abbreviation for their dream colleges: SKY.

These guys look delighted.
Test for the SKY.

Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University are the three most prestigious universities in South Korea. A SKY degree not only supercharges your status within Korea’s education-obsessed Confucian society, but also provides surefire passage to secure jobs in the country’s chaebols (conglomerates). Consequently, gaining admission to SKY makes getting into the Ivy Leagues look like child’s play.

Through the lives of three students and a celebrity teacher, the aptly named documentary Reach for the SKY chronicles this admissions process, which is documented by the nationwide Suneung Exam (also known as the CSAT, short for College Scholastic Ability Test). Administered only once per year in November, the Suneung lasts all day and covers topics including Korean, English, Math, Science, Social Science, and other foreign languages. To reach SKY, students must have a near-perfect score; less than 1% eventually gain admission to one of those three schools.

Though I’ve read countless articles about South Korea’s education system, Reach for the SKY is the first time I’ve seen it through a feature-length documentary. For someone like me with a deep general interest in education and prior knowledge about the Suneung, Reach for the SKY has been a long time coming.

I say this partially because the documentary only gives a basic factual breakdown behind the Suneung, instead choosing to focus on its human impact. Reaching for the SKY is like a pilgrimage. As the film shows, when students’ entire futures depend on a single high-stakes exam, a country and its people will perform extraordinary feats as if moved by god.

Exam day is here
Exam day is here

On exam day, South Korea shuts down. Planes are temporarily grounded, offices open late, and police officers are on standby to ferry delayed students to their test sites. Mothers flock to temples, students not taking the Suneung surround exam centers to cheer their compatriots on. As The Economist jokes, this is probably the best day to invade South Korea. Words can’t do justice to such a spectacle, but Reach for the SKY depicts its full visual glory.

Beyond exam day though, there are months of preparations, prayers, and postmortems. This is where the documentary format shines. Reach for the SKY gives us the opportunity to empathize with actual humans who undergo this seemingly inhumane process, to understand their dreams and motivations. We’re privy to the featured students’ most intimate moments. There’s the day college results come out. There’s a visit to the fortune teller. There are somber conversations with parents.

At times, the film feels like it lacks drama, but that’s a reminder of how real its subjects are. Sometimes, prepping for a big exam will just be mind-numbing and soulless. And that gets to the broader question the documentary implies — what’s the point of all this?

Suicide is the leading cause of death among South Korean teens. When Reach for the SKY shows students encouraged to study past midnight every day in costly boarding schools, it’s easy to see why. The Suneung’s complete dominance, combined with the social pressures of attending a good college, lead young Koreans to sacrifice everything else in their lives. As one student in the documentary declares, “grades are more important than friends”.

SKY Hwaiting?

Furthermore, there are questions about the Suneung’s efficacy. While South Korean high school students score high on international assessments, the SKY universities themselves don’t do so well on global college rankings. A single-minded focus on test prep may come at the cost of critical thinking or real-world skills. For instance, while all Korean students have to “know” English reading comprehension for the Suneung, few can probably have a regular English conversation. In fact, if you look closely in some of Reach for the SKY‘s shots, you’ll notice that Suneung practice questions use archaic English phrases and unnatural (but still technically correct) sentence structures.

As someone who’s tried reaching for elite American universities and been paid to help others — including Korean-Americans — do the same, I see Reach for the SKY as a deeply personal film that, though set within a different system, highlights universal challenges I can empathize with. South Korea isn’t alone with the Suneung. Other countries like China, Japan, and Taiwan have comparable national exams. I can see Reach for the SKY having relevance for global audiences, even those in comparatively test-light Western countries. Despite their extreme context, the struggles of the film’s subjects — pining for a better future, living up to societal expectations — are only human after all.

Reach for the SKY— Belgium/South Korea. Dialog in Korean with English, French, Chinese, German, Portuguese, Spanish, English, or Dutch subtitles. Directed by Steven Dhoedt and Wooyoung Choi. First released October 2016. Running time 1hr 30min.

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