'Awoke' sheds light on the real issues for people with disabilities

“Awoke” centers around Jae-gi who becomes physically disabled after an accident. The shortcomings of the local welfare system for the disabled are brought to viewers' attention in the film as Jae-gi struggles for independence. [INDIESTORY]

“Awoke” is a film that lies in the middle ground: It refuses to take on the conventional storytelling of a protagonist with disabilities that feature an exceptionally talented character who overcomes their limits to achieve their goal or realizes the true meaning of friendship with a non-disabled character. Rather, "Awoke" is about the mundane life struggles that people with disabilities face, from everyday interactions and stereotypes to finding places to eat that are accessible.

The film centers around Jae-gi, who became physically disabled after an accident that renders him with a slight tremor in his left hand, a left arm that barely functions, a speech impediment and barely able to walk. Through Jae-gi, the film zooms in to examine the grey zone within the local welfare system for the disabled, and those who exploit them by finding loopholes. It also shatters the so-called underdogma that the weak are good and the powerful are evil — even within the community for the disabled, hierarchies and ranks exist, and Jae-gi falls victim as a newcomer unable to truly adjust to the new society.

The story of Jae-gi is an adaptation taken from the experiences of director Jung Jae-ik after he became disabled in 2010 due to a car accident. Jung had written a short essay on his life after the accident during a film production workshop, which struck a chord with the class teacher and director, Seo Tae-soo. After many discussions and exchanging of stories, Jung and Seo decided to co-direct their debut feature film “Awoke” together.

Director Seo Tae-soo, left, and director Jung Jae-ik [INDIESTORY]

“Jung wrote what happened to him and his emotions after his accident,” Seo said during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Monday. “There were injustices that even I witnessed as I lived together and taught students [with disabilities] in my classes. I understood why Jung wrote this essay and why he wanted to turn his story into a film.”

Like Jae-gi in the story, Jung also received a level 5 in the disability grading system. In Korea, the disability grading system categorizes people with disabilities into six levels, with level 1 indicating the most severe degree of disability. People who receive level 1 or 2 are labeled as severely disabled and receive the full package of governmental support. As the disabled community in the film says, to receive a lower level anywhere from 4 to 6 is “equivalent to being labeled as a non-disabled person.” Due to his low grading, Jae-gi is excluded from getting the support that he desperately needs — from acquiring a new cane to getting a motorized wheelchair and finding job opportunities, which are only offered to those categorized in levels 1 to 3.

Jae-gi struggles for independence after he is categorized as a level 5 in the disability grading, which prevents him from receiving governmental support such as acquiring a motorized wheelchair. [INDIESTORY]

The system was replaced by a much simpler two-tier system separating mild disabilities from severe disabilities in July 2019 to offer a more need-centered approach for the disabled, but director Jung says that the underlying structure for welfare policies remains unchanged.

“About 80 percent of what Jae-gi went through is based on my story,” director Jung said. “I say 80 percent because Jae-gi’s speech impairment isn’t as severe as mine, but all the events that Jae-gi went through are similar to what I went through. For a person with disabilities, a person’s life can only start by acquiring a motorized wheelchair, because that’s when you obtain your right for mobility.”

“Jung needs a motorized wheelchair,” Seo explained. “So he only gets to move around on his own once he receives the wheelchair. Then he can try something, anything, to attempt to set his life in order. But before that, he cannot go outside. He can’t do anything.

“Jung told me that if he can at least walk the distance from his house to a supermarket in front of his home, then he may be able to live without a motorized wheelchair,” Seo continued. “But he can barely walk a few meters on his own. But due to the fact that he can take one or two steps, his legs were medically evaluated to be non-disabled, which ultimately excluded him from receiving the support that he needs. What should be a critical factor and meticulously analyzed in the grading process is whether or not this person can socially function on their own. But once you receive a grading, it is essentially permanent, extremely difficult to change. Your only chance lies in filing an administrative appeal, but it seems so counterintuitive that a disabled needs to personally prove their disabilities to others.”

Byung-ho, another disabled character who was born with paraplegia, is adept at maximizing his gains through loopholes in the social system.[INDIESTORY]

While Jae-gi is a victim of the system’s discrepancies, the character of Byung-ho stands in stark contrast: born as a paraplegic, he knows every nook and cranny of the system’s handbook and maximizes his gains from it. He is also a regular culprit of manipulating disabled newcomers, and his next target is none other than Jae-gi. Director Jung said that Byung-ho's character is a compilation of several other disabled people that he’d met over the years.

“Even within the disabled community, there is a social structure and hierarchies existing within,” Jung said. “There are also a lot of exploitations which you would only know about after you enter this community. Although people with disabilities are in the minority, that doesn’t immediately mean they are good people.”

“The truth is, the disabled society exactly mirrors the non-disabled society,” Seo said. “That’s why at first, I had to persuade Jung to break grounds to bring this part of the society out in the spotlight. It was natural that he felt afraid — he can easily experience repercussions because he still has to live among this community even after the film’s release. I was also torn between the importance of bringing this out for discussion and Jung’s predicament. Could I fully share the responsibility even when I don't have a disability? After many discussions, however, Jung stepped up and decided to tell the full story. We both sincerely felt that this film needed this narrative.”

Byung-ho, under the pretense of helping Jae-gi, manipulates Jae-gi to do his biddings and uses him for his own gains.[INDIESTORY]

The film’s English title, “Awoke,” also partly stems from Jung’s own experience.

“The meaning behind the title is twofold,” Seo explained. “Jung awoke to a new world to which everything became new to him after he became disabled. We also thought that our film could shed a new perspective on Korea’s disabled community and welfare system for foreigners as well.”

However, both directors say that the purpose of their film is not to criticize.

“After seeing our film, we did not [merely] want to emphasize the bad parts about the disabled community or criticize our welfare system,” Seo said. “That is not the objective of our film. However, right now, there are a lot efforts to reform the system, and there are many people within the community who work toward the betterment of rights for people with disabilities. Despite such efforts, however, people with disabilities still need to come out to the streets to fight for their livelihood. Instead of thinking negatively [about such issues], we hope people can be more open to the possibility of co-existence. It doesn’t have to be a world-changing notion. Just imagining, what would it be like if I become disabled one day: How would I be able to move around? What if my apartment complex doesn’t have a slope for my wheelchair? How would I get in the elevator with my wheelchair?”

In order for the system to truly change, directors say that interaction is key.

“We hope that people who should see this film, see it,” Seo said. “And I hope that people try to more actively meet the disabled community in our daily lives. We would know, as soon as we meet them, what they truly need. But we don’t try. Reports say that people with disabilities take up 5 percent of the total population, but we don’t see them out on the streets. In fact, they can’t come out. We need to secure a system that will enable them to come outside of their houses and us to comfortably talk to them like neighbors and simply spend time with them. Then you’d gradually know what they need and how we could prepare for the future together.”