Female Voices in Korean Cinema

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Contemporary South Korean cinema has enjoyed worldwide popularity since its resurgence as “New Korean Cinema” in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Films such as Oldboy (2003) by director Park Chan-wook or Pietà (2012) by director Kim Ki-duk have been recognized by film critics as masterpieces within the most important international film festivals, such as the Cannes Film Festival or the Venice International Film Festival. Moreover, in 2019, director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite gave Korean cinema a new boom after making history by becoming the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and winning four Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best International Feature Film, and Best Original Screenplay), making it the first non-English-speaking film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

But, despite being one of the most promising film industries of the future, Korean cinema continues to undervalue and neglect the work of female directors. In part, this is because female directors, especially debut directors, still have to struggle to get budgets and global visibility in a scenario in which only two film production companies lead the market in South Korea. Moreover, even today, male chauvinism still prevails in this type of industry, where small producers are increasingly losing influence. However, as in other parts of the world, female filmmakers in South Korea are increasingly working to have their names recognized on a par with the names of Korea’s greatest filmmakers. This will hopefully pave their way to national and international visibility. As such, this blog seeks to draw attention to the work of five Korean female filmmakers who are worth getting to know to understand where female-led Korean cinema is headed.

Joséko Art (2019). No name [illustration].
The World of Us

This 2016 film is Yoon Ga-eun’s directorial debut. The film revolves around Sun (Choi Soo-in), an outcast elementary school girl who, during summer vacation, befriends a recent transfer student named Jia (Seol Hye-in). Their friendship is put to the test when the new semester begins, as it becomes clear that the two belong to different social classes. The approach of the film’s director and screenwriter, Yoon Ga-eun, to the world of these two girls leads us to reflect on the overwhelming difficulties and competitive environment that Korean children experience not only in school but also outside of it. Nevertheless, Yoon’s overall approach delicately and sensitively follows the story of this friendship, thus endowing the film with a steady, effective pace and very minimalist production values. The World of Us is a heartbreaking story about friendship, bullying, and broken families, but it is told in an endearing way thanks to its direction and wonderful performances.

Promotional poster for The World of Us
Microhabitat

This 2017 drama film was written and directed by Jeon Go-woon, a director who focuses on telling tales of social urgency while maintaining a certain tenderness in aesthetics. The plot of this film is woven around the life of Miso (Esom), a woman in her thirties who is willing to give up all her comforts to protect what brings her true happiness: cigarettes, whiskey, and her boyfriend. Regardless of society’s judgments on her life, Miso creates a small microhabitat nestled in the massive city, where she is happy having only what she considers indispensable. Although Microhabitat clearly reflects the three problems that most afflict the new generations: the lack of free education, formal employment, and complicated access to housing, its background is even deeper, as it is a reflection of how much we complicate ourselves to be happy when the reality is that happiness is found in the simplest things.

Promotional poster for Microhabitat
Our Body

This 2018 feature film, written and directed by Han Ka-ram in her directorial debut, is the story of Ja-young (Choi Hee-seo), a thirty-something woman dissatisfied with her life who has been studying for many years to obtain a civil servant position that does not interest her, solely because it is her mother’s wish. But everything changes for her when, one night, she crosses paths with an attractive runner (Ahn Ji-hye), who becomes the mirror she needs to find true motivation. Han Ka-ram narrates in an interview that Our Body came about after questioning how changing our bodies can also change our minds. Therefore, in this film, the director explores themes such as depression, the concerns of the so-called “generation Y” or “millennials”, and the macho look that society still has on women through the physical and mental transformation that Ja-young, the protagonist, makes.

Promotional poster for Our Body
Maggie

The story of young nurse Yoon-Young (Lee Joo-Young) takes an unexpected turn after an X-ray of two people having sex, in which she believes she appears engaged, is found in the hospital where she works. This independent film, which premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in 2018, was written and directed by Yi Ok-Seop, a director particularly interested in stories where young people are the protagonists. Therefore, this film, like many of her other works, aims to arouse the empathy of young adults, who may come to identify with the story. In addition, the cinematography in Maggie is especially remarkable, as the story is told through a series of vignettes connected by the themes of communication and trust and features particularly aesthetic shots.

Promotional poster for Maggie
House of Hummingbird

This acclaimed 2018 film was written and directed by Kim Bora, and since its release, it has won 59 awards, recognizing it as one of the best films in the Korean film industry. House of Hummingbird, set in the year 1994, deals with the story of Eun-hee (Park Ji-hoo), a 14-year-old teenager who is beginning to experience her sexuality with both boys and girls. Although Eun-hee lacks attention from her family, an open-minded teacher enters her life to encourage her to keep her spirit and move forward. Through Eun-hee’s story of discovery, director Kim Bora aims to make the audience reflect on their own inner quests and paths to maturity. The aim of both the script and cinematography of House of Hummingbird is to place us in the most realistic way in the 1990s, when issues such as gender, sexuality, and mental health were still taboo in society.

Promotional poster for House of Hummingbird

The films mentioned above are just a small and recent sample of the work that many women in Korean cinema have done as directors and writers. Among them, one can notice as a characteristic pattern the interest in telling everyday stories about everyday women, but through which it is intended to convey profound messages about the main issues that women continue to face today, such as gender inequality. The importance of making films like these and the work of women’s voices in cinema in general visible is to contribute to creating new opportunities for women in an industry that, since its inception, has been governed by men. In addition, these films invite us to reflect on the role of women within society because, as Kim Bora mentions, “being a woman is a challenge, but a gift at the same time, considering that a man would not be able to tell these stories in the same way” (Interview for MUBI, 2019).

Written and reviewed by: Luisa Quintero

References

Chau, H. y Ng, N. (Octubre 26, 2020). THE WOMEN DIRECTORS LEADING SOUTH KOREAN CINEMA INTO ITS NEXT CENTURY. Filmed in ether. https://www.filmedinether.com/video-essays/the-women-directors-leading-south-korean-cinema-into-its-next-century/

ZoomF7. (Febrero 20, 2020). Diez películas coreanas dirigidas por mujeres. ZoomF7. https://zoomf7.net/2020/02/20/diez-peliculas-coreanas-dirigidas-por-mujeres/

Mullor, M. (Junio 2, 2020). LAS DIRECTORAS DEL CINE SURCOREANO LLEGAN A FILMIN CON EL FESTIVAL INDIE & DOC. Fotogramas. https://www.fotogramas.es/noticias-cine/a32738972/festival-indie-and-doc-directoras-surcoreanas-filmin/

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