Chasing your dreams, according to the movies

Editor’s note: “Ever Since I Was” is a bi-weekly column detailing the genesis and growth of the passions of UW and U-District community members.

Last August, my family decided to drive east to South Dakota, hoping to see Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore — a trip that worked well while COVID-19 made other forms of travel more challenging. While souvenir shopping, my mom, sister, and I walked into a store selling leather bags and purses. After telling the man behind the counter we were visiting from Seattle, he said, without missing a beat: “How does it feel to be out here in free country?”

I still look back on that encounter with curiosity. What did he mean? For someone who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, South Dakota’s broad prairies and sparse cities seemed like possible elements of this so-called “free country.” 

It was a reminder that people’s aspirations often differ depending on the environment they grow up in. While I can’t imagine living away from the opportunities in the Seattle metropolitan area, this South Dakotan seemed convinced that the open prairie offered greater life satisfaction.

Over the past quarter, this column has allowed me to explore the beliefs and environments that cultivate our passions. Whether that nurturing ground comes from our culture, our family, or our access to DIY resources, it’s clear that we don’t develop our life goals in a vacuum.

While not every Hollywood film can be said to describe reality, exploring how movies depict people chasing their dreams in different times and places can help us access new experiences.

Films like Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” paint an idealistic picture of the city as the place where dreams are formed and stars are born. Set in Los Angeles, the musical gives viewers a rich glimpse of the city’s vibrant nightlife, romantic piers, and iconic Hollywood studio lots.

The name of the film itself is tied up with the city. The dictionary definition of “la-la land” is both a nickname for Los Angeles and a state of dreamlike detachment from reality, according to Merriam Webster

Chazelle confirmed the significance of the city to the movie’s themes. 

“There is something very poetic about the city I think, about a city that is built by people with these unrealistic dreams and people who kind of just put it all on the line for that,” Chazelle said in an article for The Hollywood Reporter

Likewise, Disney’s box office hit “Zootopia” poses deeper questions of stereotyping, discrimination, and barriers to upward social mobility with its anthropomorphic world, while also making us smile with its adorable bunny protagonist in a police officer uniform. Early scenes show Judy Hopps, soon-to-be Zootopia’s first bunny cop, waving goodbye to her carrot farmer parents as she takes the train into the dazzling metropolis. 

Like “La La Land,” the city, not the rural outskirts of society, is implied to be the place where dreams are made and pursued. “Anyone can be anything” they want in Zootopia, goes the city’s mantra, and this serves as a rebuttal to the persistent stereotyping of predators and prey on which the main conflict of the story is based. Only once she leaves her hometown of rural Bunnyburrow does Hopps’ life seem to begin. 

Watching movies like these, urban life seems to be the ticket to the opportunity one has always waited for. 

A few examples from Korean cinema provide an interesting counter-perspective to this idealization of the city as a breeding ground for dreams. 

Little Forest” tells the poignant story of Hye-won, a young girl who fails her teaching certification exam and becomes disillusioned with her busy, lonely life in Seoul. Moving back to the countryside village where she grew up, Hye-won learns to appreciate the simple pleasures of planting potatoes and watching the seasons pass. 

The slow-paced film suggests that working hard and being busy doesn’t necessarily make one’s life more meaningful, and provides a refreshing, romanticized picture of living in tune with nature.  

Emily Hall, a part-time lecturer in the department of Asian languages & literature, said this kind of film isn’t generally what you find in Korean cinema. Popular horror films in Korea offer a darker insight into what happens when the ideal of success in the urban world falls apart or turns corrupt. 

“One of the largest themes in horror films is school,” Hall said. “In school, [the] pressure [is] on … people’s mentality and stuff, and that whole ‘ppalli ppalli, hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry’ society which is part of Korean culture.”

One example Hall pointed to was Yoon Hong-seung’s horror film “Death Bell,” which is set inside an elite high school. A class of promising pupils preparing for a college entry exam are forced to answer questions correctly or die a gruesome death in a way that critiques the hyper-competition and pressure to succeed in South Korean schools, as explained on the review website Hangul Celluloid

According to Hall, not getting into South Korea’s top three universities — Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University, or SKY — means you won’t succeed in life. The 2015 documentary “Reach for the SKY” provides a window into the intense pressures faced by South Korean high school students as they prepare for the annual National University Exam, or Suneung. According to the documentary website, this exam effectively seals their status in Korean hierarchical society. 

While ambition, opportunity, and affirmation from others are keys to success in American movies like “La La Land” and “Zootopia,” certain Korean films suggest that these principles may not be enough to get far in life. 

In the realm of Eastern European cinema, “The Oak,” a film directed by Romanian Lucian Pintilie, evokes a world “completely alien to contemporary American experience,” one reviewer wrote in 1992 for the New York Times. Set near the end of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime in the 1980s, the film follows a young school teacher, Nela, as she navigates an oppressive communist society after her father’s death.

Along with Mitica, a doctor, the idealistic young woman challenges the status quo of normalcy in her society. As a recently established child psychologist, she tries to alter attitudes towards children even while persecuted by those around her, according to an email from Gordana Crnković, a professor in the Slavic languages & literatures and cinema & media studies departments at UW.

In a journal article for Literature/Film Quarterly, Odette Caufman-Blumenfeld wrote that “The Oak” satirizes the other teachers around Nela, showing how they blindly succumb to the commands and doctrines of the state. 

“The film itself is a most unusual tragicomic mixture where one laughs one moment and then cries a second later, and that texture seems to convey the best the environment in which this woman tries to pursue her goals,” Crnković said in an email.

Whether they are set in the city or the countryside, the East or the West, films from diverse parts of the world provide a view into the different settings that are conducive or prohibitive to chasing success. By pursuing a broader understanding of the spaces that people form their dreams in, we can define success less as an arbitrary level of achievement and more as a journey that flows out of the challenges and limitations we overcome. 

Reach columnist Julia Park at [email protected] Twitter: @thejuliastory

Like what you’re reading? Support high-quality student journalism by donating here.

We wish to say thanks to the writer of this short article for this outstanding material

Chasing your dreams, according to the movies