Women Directors of South Korean Cinema: Fierce and Fearless
By Claire Graman
Parasite’s historical win for Best Picture at last year’s Academy Awards helped Korean film break through “the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles.” Male directors Bong Joon-Ho (Snowpiercer, Okja) and Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden) are especially well-known, but what about South Korea’s female directors? As in the U.S., Korea’s film industry has struggled with inequality, where less than 10% of directors are women. However, there are still plenty of amazing women directors of South Korean Cinema. In today’s list, we’ll meet some of these exciting directors and explore their work.
Yim belongs to the first generation of female directors, beginning her career in the 1990s with an award-winning short “Promenade in the Rain” (1994). She made many films since, but also works as an advocate for feminism in the Korean film industry. In 2001, she made a documentary on gender disparity in the Korean film industry called Keeping the Vision Alive: Women in Korean Filmmaking. Yim also participated in the #MeToo movement and started The Centre for Gender Equality in Korean Film in 2018 with producer Jaime Shim.
Her most successful film, in terms of box office, is Forever the Moment (2008) a drama about South Korea’s women’s Olympic handball team. Her latest feature, Little Forest (2018) is a remake of a Japanese graphic novel. In the film, a young woman returns to her rural home after failing to make it in the big city. It did well on the film festival circuit and is now free on Tubi.
Already successful as Park Chan-wook’s assistant director, Lee made her debut film Crush and Blush (2008). In this dark, quirky comedy, a high school Russian teacher schemes her way into the heart of a handsome coworker. Described as a hidden gem, the film brings the manipulation of Parasite to the Rom-Com genre. Lee’s second film, The Truth Beneath (2016), was co-written with Park and has garnered acclaim as a stylish thriller. It follows a politician’s wife whose daughter is kidnapped and is available to rent on Amazon Prime.
Kim’s career is young but promising. After getting her MFA at Columbia, she won Best Student Filmmaker Award from the Directors Guild of America for her short, “The Recorder Exam” (2012). Her debut feature, House of the Hummingbird (2018) won acclaim at a TON of film festivals. The deeply personal film follows a 14-year-old girl coming of age in 1990s Seoul. The film frankly explores its heroine’s bisexuality, touching on the collective trauma caused by the 1994 collapse of Seongsu Bridge. It can be rented on Vudu, YouTube, and Prime.
Jung Joo-ri (a.k.a. July Jung)
Here’s another director with a promising career ahead of her. Jung’s love of film, from all over the world, began at an early age. When she finally made a feature length film, A Girl at My Door (2014), it made a splash, both in South Korea and at Cannes. Doona Bae, who was arguably the best part of The Cloud Atlas (2012), plays a lesbian police officer who attempts to rescue a young girl from her abusive father.
The empathetic film is unique for exploring issues faced by not only women and the LGBT community, but also illegal immigrants. Released a few years ago, the film is hard to get. You can rent it from Vimeo or BFI Player, but you may need a VPN to change your location. Fair warning that the film does include difficult themes of sexism, homophobia, alcoholism, domestic violence, and sexual abuse.
Jeong’s debut film, Take Care of My Cat (2001), a coming-of-age drama about five female friends post-high school, was a box office flop, but is now a cult classic. The Guardian included it in its list of classic Korean cinema. After a turn making documentaries, exploring themes of environment and architecture, Jeong returned to fictional film with Butterfly Sleep (2017), a romantic melodrama about a novelist and teacher with early-onset Alzheimers. Though not as artistic as Take Care of My Cat, the film was received as a solid romance and is also free to watch on Tubi.
The success of the Korean film-industry is a double-edged sword, as studios can be reluctant to take risks on expensive films or give women filmmakers chances. Culture is shifting, however, with the success of #MeToo, here and abroad. If you have a quiet moment this holiday season, you might want to explore international film and support women directors.