The Rise of Female Voices in Korean Cinema

By Jason Bechervaise

News category: Blog

It’s no secret that Korea is home to a number of extremely talented filmmakers, and while it’s often Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Jee-woon along with other male directors that tend to take centre stage, there is also a large pool of talent in terms of female filmmakers. Indeed, some of the most famous producers in Korea such as Shim Jae-myung (JSA) and Oh Jung-hwan (Untold Scandal) are women.

The growing number of female directors in Korea is largely attributed to changes in the industry since the 1990s, mainly in terms of film education. The growing number of postgraduate degrees in film in Korea provided filmmakers, regardless of gender, with the opportunity to demonstrate their talent through their graduation films. Although, the apprentice system where rookie filmmakers would work under an established director that has been in place in Korea for decades still existed, film schools enabled female filmmakers to make their own mark on the industry.

During much of the twentieth century, however, there were few opportunities presented to women. The first film to be directed by a Korean woman was Park Nam-ok’s The Widow (1956) that is screening at the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. Park, who faced much prejudice as a female filmmaker in Korea wasn’t even permitted into the sound studio following the six-month shoot and the film was largely forgotten until it opened the first Women’s Film Festival in Seoul in 1997.

Focussing on the female perspective, in this case a widow played by Lee Min-ja, Park provides a compelling and honest depiction of the difficulties facing women in post-war Korea as they struggle with obligations and personal desires.

Between then and the ‘90s, there were a few films made by women including Hong Eun-won’s Female Judge (1962), Choi Eun-hee’s (Shin Sang-ok’s wife) Future Daughter-in-law (1965), Hwang Hye-mi’s First Experience (1970) and Lee Mi-rye’s Forget-Me-Not (1987).

During the 1990s, as the industry experienced significant change as it entered a new era, a number of female filmmakers emerged such as Byun Young-joo with the acclaimed documentary The Murmuring (1995) about comfort women that became the first part of a trilogy; Yim Soon-rye with Three Friends; Lee Jeong-hyang with Art Museum by the Zoo (1998) and Jeong Jae-eun with her timeless coming-of-age classic Take Care of my Cat (2002).

They all became distinctive voices in Korean cinema. Byun Young-joo also went on to direct several films including Flying Boys (2012) and the award winning Helpless (2012) starring Kim Min-hee in a turning point in her career.

Exploring issues such as rising financial debt from a feminine perspective, Byun’s mystery thriller follows a woman who suddenly disappears leaving her fiancé anxiously searching for her but in the process unravels secrets about the woman he intends to marry.

Yim Soon-rye is another prominent figure in the Korean film industry having directed a number of films including the box office hit Forever the Moment (2008) based on the true story of the South Korean women’s national handball team winning silver at the Athens Olympics. Although her narrative features Three Friends and Waikiki Brothers (2001) were very warmly embraced by critics, they failed to attract a large audience. Forever the Moment, however, was a surprise hit encompassing her strong character development structured in an engrossing sports film.

Four years after Lee Jeong-hyang made Art Museum by the Zoo, her second feature The Way Home found a home both locally and abroad becoming the second most popular film in Korea in 2012, and was also was sold to other countries including the U.K and U.S. Far from commercial in nature, the film about a six-year-old who is sent to live with his grandmother in the country is an enchanting example of the power of cinema told in its simplest form.

Bae Doona and friends in Take Care of My Cat

Jeong Jae-eun’s Take Care of My Cat returns to the big screen at the London Korean Film Festival. It was the first Korean film to be released theatrically in the UK some fourteen years ago in December 2002.

Coming-of-age dramas often feature men, but the critically acclaimed feature follows a group of women as they struggle with life a year after they graduate from high school in the port town of Incheon. Featuring Bae Doona on always terrific form at the beginning of her career, it combines social critique with an engaging narrative.

Since the early 2000s, other female filmmakers have also emerged leaving a lasting impression. Lee Kyoung-mi is such an example. Debuting with the innovative and amusing Crush and Blush, she further demonstrated her exceptional talent with the political thriller The Truth Beneath, which opens LKFF. Although it tragically failed at the box office, its depiction of a wife (magnificently acted by Son Ye-jin) as she searchers for her missing daughter reveals the true cost of political ambition and the consequences it has on a family.

Other directors include Park Chan-ok who helmed the superb and complex film Paju set in a town near the border with North Korea about a relationship between a fifteen-year-old girl and her teacher. Premiering at the Busan film festival, it then went on to open the Rotterdam International Film Festival – the first time a Korean film has done so.

Looking at other directors, Boo Ji-young (Sisters on the Road (2009)) is yet another highly proficient filmmaker made evident by her engrossing and stylistic drama Cart that tackles head on the issue of temporary labour faced by many, including women.

With an abundance of accomplished female filmmakers continuing to work in Korea exploring issues faced by women, which is also illustrated by Kim Soo-jung’s more recent A Blue Mouthed Face (2015) about a woman in debt, few can deny the growing prominence of these directors both locally and internationally.