So Mayer Recommends
Here’s a perfectly imperfect pair of films by women directors whose concerns with daughterly responsibility, middle-class respectability and forging a feminist path mirror each other across more than half a century. Their concerns with the claustrophobia of family homes, both physical and psychic, is strangely liberating in these isolation days, expressing both the frustration and love bound up in living, together.
Image: My Father's House
“How can we live when everything happens at once?” filmmaker Kangyu Garam’s father asks her in the middle of her 2011 documentary My Father's House. He’s talking about his economic troubles, in a middle-class bind of property ownership, business debt and supporting his extended family, but the film offers a wider, compellingly relevant, meditation on the tension between capitalism and the bonds of care. Kangyu offers an unsparing depiction of how her parents’ conservative politics got them into this situation, but also extends the same rigorous compassion to them, palpable in her festival-favourite films about activist and marginalised communities Candle Wave Feminists (2017) and Itaewon (2016). Here, she shows the complex motivations and fears behind her parents’ drive to own their own home and business and finally wonders whether her need for a place of her own might not mirror her father’s. “There’s no such thing,” says her mother when Kangyu says she wants to be independent. “Why do you want to leave when you’ve got nothing special to do?” It hits home.
To watch the full length film with director Kangyu Garam's recorded introduction, click here
A Woman Judge (Hong Eun-Won). Image courtesy of The Korean Film Archive
Kangyu’s parents share both their self-made bootstraps attitude and their disapproval of young women’s public ambitions with the parents-in-law of the protagonist in Hong Eun-Won’s 1962 debut feature A Woman Judge. An experienced performer, script supervisor and assistant director, Hong became the second Korean woman to make a fiction feature – perhaps mirroring her own struggles in those of the main character Jin-suk, the titular judge. Treated as a novelty by the media, she attracts the attention of an industrialist who persuades her to move in and marry his playboy son, Gyu-sik. Jealous of her work, Gyu-sik starts an affair with his secretary, and the film takes a turn from romantic comedy and social drama into a brilliant noir, as Jin-suk becomes the defence lawyer for her disapproving mother-in-law, in a story that highlights both class and gender taboos in mid-century society. The final frames of the film are missing from the only surviving print, a reminder of how many women’s stories remain untold in Korean cinema.
A Woman Judge is available to watch for free on the Korean Film Archive's YouTube channel here
Kangyu’s trip with her mother to visit her sister in New York, where they take the ferry Miss Ellis Island to visit the Empire State Building made me think of the work of Korean-American poet and filmmaker Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, whose incredible mixed-media book DICTEE begins with Hangol graffiti from the immigration centre on Ellis Island. Her short video works, intended to be screened on a television monitor, expose the intimate difficulties and difficult intimacies of speaking across generations linked and separated by immigration, racism and changing gender politics. These meditations on embodied communication would be perfect to watch online right now.
As would Dutch/Belgian artist Sarah Sejin Chang’s installation film Brussels 2016, a letter to her unknown mother in South Korea. Chang’s journeys around Brussels during her residency at WIELS mark the precarity of the city in the time of the Brussels bombings and the British Brexit vote, marking the tender way in which urban community is stitched together from small encounters with human and other-than-human beings. The film also explores gentrification, and the intersections of artist communities, queer friendship groups, and the Roma and Syrian refugees who all share a single neighbourhood, and with whom Chang examines Belgian colonialism and racism. The city as it should be emerges, tenacious at the grass roots, complicated and luminous with vulnerability, a reminder of what’s possible when we can go outside.
Some of Chang’s other work is free to view on her website: https://www.sarasejinchang.com/
We also recommend Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s seminal book Dictee https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dictee-Theresa-Hak-Cha/dp/0520261291
So Mayer is a feminist film activist, film lecturer, poet and journalist. Member of queer feminist curation collective, Club des Femmes.