The (few) women breaking through in Korean cinema

Women are unusually well-represented on screen in Korean cinema. Behind the camera is a different story – for reasons that say more about our own biases than we might care to recognise.

Darcy Paquet
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The Truth Beneath. Lee Kyoung-mi was named Best Director at this year’s Korean Film Critics Awards for her startling second feature – but the film has been passed over by the world’s major festivals

The Truth Beneath. Lee Kyoung-mi was named Best Director at this year’s Korean Film Critics Awards for her startling second feature – but the film has been passed over by the world’s major festivals

The word ‘jungle’ seems an apt description of the filmmaking environment in South Korea, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. After all, jungles are diverse and bursting with life. The Korean film industry is a dynamic community that turns out all manner of films, and which has successfully competed with Hollywood to occupy the central position in its home market.

But those other connotations of the word are also relevant. Korean filmmakers work in a highly competitive, cutthroat setting where many promising careers end before they properly get started. Talent does not rise naturally to the top; with so many other factors at play, even the most unusually talented directors must fight to survive.

Seen from abroad, of course, the picture looks simpler. Six directors who debuted in the 1990s have been held up by international critics and festival programmers as Korea’s most important auteurs: Park Chan-wook, Hong Sangsoo, Bong Joon-ho, Lee Chang-dong, Kim Ki-duk and Kim Jee-woon. However, to focus only on this small group of admittedly talented directors obscures much of what is interesting about contemporary Korean cinema. It’s only when you wade deeper in that you start to fully appreciate an industry whose successes and failures have much to teach the rest of the world.

The Truth Beneath’s director Lee Kyoung-mi on stage at the London Korean Film Festival

The Truth Beneath’s director Lee Kyoung-mi on stage at the London Korean Film Festival

This points to the value of events such as the recent London East Asia Film Festival and the London Korean Film Festival, which show a wide variety of films and offer the opportunity to more deeply explore important topics. A special focus at this year’s London Korean Film Festival on ‘The Lives of Korean Women through the Eyes of Women Directors’ highlighted a number of exceptional filmmakers, as well as providing a lens through which to view the very complicated ways in which gender affects experience in contemporary South Korea. It also raised a problem that remains stubbornly unresolved not only in Korea, but everywhere else too: the uneven playing field for women in cinema.

In some ways South Korean cinema might serve as a role model, or so suggests the festival’s write-up for a forum on Representing Women on Screen. Quoting the Geena Davis Institute and UN Women, the festival catalogue noted that 36 per cent of speaking characters in Korean commercial film are female, and 50 per cent of films have female leads or co-leads – far higher than the global average.

Veteran director Yim Soon-rye’s Forever the Moment (2008), an unexpected hit at this year’s LKFF

Veteran director Yim Soon-rye’s Forever the Moment (2008), an unexpected hit at this year’s LKFF

But a more pessimistic tone prevailed at the panel with veteran director Yim Soon-rye – whose 2008 film Forever the Moment, about South Korea’s national women’s handball team, was an unexpected hit – and Lee Kyoung-mi, whose startling second feature The Truth Beneath, about a politician’s wife whose daughter goes missing, beat The Handmaiden and The Wailing to win Best Director at the 2016 Korean Association of Film Critics Awards (but was passed over by the world’s major film festivals). Lee, describing the many challenges she faced in making the film, noted that many female-centred films face an onslaught of criticism online even before their release. Producers and investors, of course, take notice of such factors.

Yim also observed that films about women, and films directed by women, receive less international exposure than male-centred films.  On the latter point, it is true that (as in every country) male directors far outnumber female directors, and so it is unsurprising that the six most famous Korean directors mentioned above are all male. Even more so when you consider that all six debuted in the 1990s, a decade in which women had far fewer opportunities than even today. Indeed, no Korean male directors who debuted in the last 15 years have been ushered into the international festival network’s favoured ‘inner circle’ (though Na Hong-jin, with his weird and brilliant The Wailing, may be pounding at the door). Is it that subsequent generations have failed to produce anyone with a similar level of talent, or is there something else going on? Any reasoned analysis strongly suggests the latter.

Forever the Moment’s Yim Soon-rye speaking at the London Korean Film Festival

Forever the Moment’s Yim Soon-rye speaking at the London Korean Film Festival

Examining the dynamics inside the Korean film industry shows how, especially for women directors, talent is only one among many factors that determine the arc of their careers. Debut director Lee Hyun-joo, whose film Our Love Story, about a relationship between two women, was also included in the LKFF’s special focus, says that women are often herded into specific genres.

“One director I know shot a well-received short genre film and then wanted to make her debut in a similar genre,” she says. “But the production company told her to direct a melodrama first, and that if she were successful, they’d produce the genre film she wanted to make. It was a kind of test – but you can’t imagine a male director being asked to do that.”

More generally, she maintains that producers and investors are uncomfortable entrusting large budgets to women directors, which creates a kind of walled garden in which female directors must work. Women are also discouraged from fields such as cinematography, which perhaps reflects a broader reluctance to put expensive equipment in the hands of women.

Park Chan-ok’s haunting Paju (2009)

Park Chan-ok’s haunting Paju (2009)

Many of the breakthroughs that women directors have achieved in the Korean film industry have come with the support of powerful women producers. Indeed, this is one area where women appear to suffer no disadvantage with their male counterparts. The names may change, but if you made up a list of the five most powerful producers working in the film industry at any given time over the past 15 years, it always includes at least three women.

Jaime Shim of Myung Films, for example, has helped launch the careers of Yim Soon-rye and Park Chan-ok, a supremely talented auteur who has directed two films to date: Jealousy is My Middle Name (2002) and the haunting Paju (2009), which is also included in the LKFF’s program. The best producers are able to shield directors from the demands of investors, and provide a working environment suited to making artistically accomplished works.

Yet one of the most dramatic and unfortunate developments in the Korean industry over the past decade has been the increased concentration of films made within the umbrella of major local studios such as CJ and Lotte, and the subsequent loss of power suffered by individual producers. Rumours abound of committees within the big film conglomerates who assign numerical ratings to each and every scene in a screenplay, and then demand cuts or changes to the scenes that score the lowest ratings. Whether or not such an approach results in higher box office is up to debate, but for directors attempting to establish a unique authorial voice to make them stand out from the crowd, the result can be devastating.

No sacrifice: The Handmaiden, the latest from male A-lister Park Chan-wook

No sacrifice: The Handmaiden, the latest from male A-lister Park Chan-wook

It’s true that a top-level director such as Park Chan-wook can make an ambitious, boundary-pushing film like The Handmaiden within the confines of a big studio without sacrificing any of his creative freedom. But the amount of creative control a director maintains over his or her film depends on reputation and track record. Women stand at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to building a record of commercial success, given the industry reluctance to entrust women with big-budget productions that are more likely to succeed at the box office. And to date, women have received comparatively little support from the other institutions that can most effectively build up a director’s reputation: major Western film festivals.

Admittedly, festivals were not created for the purpose of promoting fairness in the world’s film industries – their primary goal is to meet the needs of their audience. But the risk-averse nature of some festivals has done no favours to the goal of gender equality. In South Korea, and in many industries around the world, festival recognition is a self-reinforcing process. A high-profile festival invitation or award gives that director more than just publicity: it also affects the degree of creative control he or she will wield in subsequent projects – which in turn results in better films, and more festival exposure. Therefore it’s been discouraging to see the list of South Korean women directors who receive considerable critical support at home, but much less support abroad, grow longer with the passage of time.

Lee Hyun-joo’s old-school relationship story Our Love Story has the clarity of a 1950s Hollywood melodrama

Lee Hyun-joo’s old-school relationship story Our Love Story has the clarity of a 1950s Hollywood melodrama

Part of the issue may be that both programmers and the audiences at their festivals expect and prefer certain kinds of film out of Asia, at the expense of others. This is not to say that they are biased towards male-directed films per se, but that a large subsection of films in which women directors enjoy freer rein are less likely to be taken seriously by the festival establishment.

For example, this writer has often heard films that explore women’s changing position in Korean society greeted by international audiences with polite praise, mixed with a vague sense of dismissal, as if to say: “In our country, we’ve already moved beyond these issues.” Is that really so? Such attitudes seem to combine a naïve disregard for the complex, unique ways that gender issues play out in each society with perhaps an overestimation of how far their own countries have progressed.

At any rate, international audiences may need a bit of tenacity, and maybe an open mind, to see the films emerging from South Korean women directors in recent years. But many of them are surprising, insightful and more complex than they appear on the surface.

Lee’s Our Love Story is a good example: a film that takes a consciously old-school approach to the relationship drama. Although its narrative arc is quite simple, the film depicts the emotions of its main characters with a precision and clarity that recall 1950s Hollywood melodrama. It also captures, sometimes with light humour, the contradictions of a society whose attitudes towards same-sex relationships are in flux. The debut film has built up a passionate fan following in Korea after just a few screenings, and it also received high profile invitations to San Sebastian and Vancouver ahead of its presentation in the UK. It is clearly the work of a filmmaker who possesses both talent and potential. Whether Lee will be able to successfully navigate the jungle and build a career for herself remains to be seen.

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