An expatriate has been defined in the past as a person, who’s been banished from his/her country. The modern term refers to self-banishment and often to a person in their later years seeking retirement from home and life. Today, the population of expatriates is growing, especially amongst millennials looking for a new experience in what they call a “quarter-life” crisis. Filmmaker Erick Gallegos follows a group of young adults living in Hyangnam, South Korea, in his documentary, Exiles.
Exiles feels like a nature documentary in that he just presents facts without judgment. He’s gathered about a dozen subjects and they talk about their time living and surviving in South Korea. The structure of the documentary is very logical, starting from the point their plane lands in Korea to the moment they get back on that plane and head home.
One minor criticism, I could give to Exiles, is just how specific it is. Rather than a treatise on the global expatriate experience and culture, the film focuses specifically on the country of South Korea and its unique opportunities for Western travelers. This means the experiences in other countries like China, Japan, and Europe will be quite different and never discussed.
Why South Korea? One, it’s easy. The red tape of living there is minimal. Two, it’s affordable. The cost of living is much lower compared to most other countries like Japan. Three, there are opportunities for long-term employment. Four, the country is incredibly friendly to Westerners.
“…a Hagwon, a for-profit school and teach Korean children some sort of subject.”
Our film opens with why? Why Gallegos’ subjects chose South Korea? Most have graduated from college and want to experience the world before locking themselves into long-term careers. Others have never lived far from home and halfway around the world is about as far as you can get.
Once in Korea, these expatriates board a bus and head either into the country or small cities. Most find employment at what’s known as a Hagwon, a for-profit school and teach Korean children some sort of subject. Mostly English, but others like Chinese, French, piano, cello, taekwondo, etc. The beauty of the system is you can make some pretty good money as a teach, and you don’t have to be an expert or competent in the subject.
The film mostly delves, though, into the cultural and personal experiences of his subjects. In general, each person is looking to find themselves. Many claimed they learned more about life in the year(s), they spent in Korea. They also talk about being away from lifelong friends and family, being alone in a country without understanding the language or customs, and how they gravitate to any Westerners, they see walking down the street. Nakita is the only African-American subject, and she describes the racism and discrimination she experienced in Korea.
The culture of Korea is another eye-opening experience. The reason these expats work at hagwons is because of the pressure Korean parents place upon their children. Each subject they learn is like a merit badge, and the ultimate prize is going to the best universities. Children are often shipped directly from their regular schools to hagwons, and the pressure to succeed is enormous. So much so that the suicide rate amongst young adults is the highest in the world.
“…has insightful things to say about living abroad and the expatriate experience…”
Drinking is more than a casual experience as well. Alcoholism rates are the highest in the world. Koreans don’t drink for fun; they drink to keep themselves from committing suicide.
While most of those in the documentary tell similar stores about their time in Korea, Gallegos brings in a wide range of experiences. His subjects have been in Korea from just a few months to nine years and the long-term expats stay for various reasons. As the expatriates flock together, the turnover rate is high. High enough that some members have grown numb to the ritual of saying goodbye or building long-lasting friendships.
I just have a few thoughts about Exiles. If you’re interested in the very specific subject of living short-term in South Korea, this is an excellent documentary to watch. It definitely has insightful things to say about living abroad and the expatriate experience, but if the subject doesn’t interest you, you’re going to have a hard time getting through to the end, considering the doc is a series of interviews. Interviews are interspliced with video “postcards” of South Korea and footage of a few drinking and karaoke parties.
Director Gallegos is thorough in his examination of the subject and how he lays it out. It’s very easy to follow. It’s definitely not a travel brochure or promotional piece for South Korea. While the experience may look like fun from a distance, he sugarcoats nothing.
Exile (2019) Directed by Erick Gallegos.
6.5 out of 10 stars