[INTERVIEW] 'Female directors will lead Korea's next wave of film auteurs'

[INTERVIEW] 'Female directors will lead Korea's next wave of film auteurs'

From left, the filmmakers, Yoon Dan-bi (“Moving On”), Jeon Go-woon (“Microhabitat”), Kim Bo-ra (“House of Hummingbird”) and Yoon Ga-eun (“The House of Us”) / Korea Times file

By Kwak Yeon-soo

Recent discussions on gender and feminism sparked by the #MeToo Movement, together with the rise of female voices in Korean cinema, have fueled growing interest in women and minorities in film.

From Jeon Go-woon (“Microhabitat,” 2018) to Yoon Ga-eun (“The House of Us,” 2019) as well as Yi Ok-seop (“Maggie,” 2019) and Kim Bo-ra (“House of Hummingbird,” 2019), women have been making their presence felt in Korean cinema.

In 2020, the Directors Guild of Korea (DGK) launched “Bechdel Day,” a week of gender equality and representation to encourage Korean filmmakers to produce films that capture the voices of all genders. This year, the DGK selected 10 films that passed the Bechdel test ― a measurement developed in the U.S., which is the bare minimum requirement for stories involving women.

To pass the Bechdel test, at least two named female characters have to appear in the movie, and they have to talk about a subject not related to men.

The selected works are “Moving On,” “An Old Lady,” “I Don’t Fire Myself,” “The Day I Died,” “Diva,” “Black Light” “Samjin Company English Class,” “Whispering Corridors 6: The Humming,” “The Call” and “Aloners.”

These events have brought female directors closer together and that sentiment can be felt from the slogan of this year’s Seoul International Women’s Film Festival (SIWFF), “A Caring Reflection.”

[INTERVIEW] 'Female directors will lead Korea's next wave of film auteurs'

Park Kwang-soo, the chief director of the Seoul International Women’s Film Festival / Courtesy of the SIWFF

Park Kwang-soo, the chief director of the SIWFF, said that the COVID-19 outbreak has led women in all aspects of the cinema to care for one another and take a deep look around at how the industry is reinventing itself in the wake of the pandemic.

“Last year, we conducted a series of interviews with female directors and found that they have this strong desire for connection ― the feeling that someone is watching over and supporting them. Emerging filmmakers also seek out financial support and mentoring relationships when things are hard,” she during an interview with The Korea Times, Wednesday.

Park shared the example of what had happened to director Jeon Go-woon. “Jeon was about to leave filmmaking behind until she got a phone call from the SIWFF, asking to screen her short film, “Too Bitter to Love” (2008) at the film festival. She broke out into tears because that one request saved her career. She was deeply moved by the fact that somebody had been paying attention to her works,” she said.

The emergence of young, talented women filmmakers didn’t happen overnight. Park compared the recent high-profile breakthroughs of women directors to the early 2000s, when remarkable directors like Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook came to prominence.

“There’s finally this wave that’s rising up and there are so many promising female filmmakers whose works are actually getting out into the world. As an industry insider who’s witnessed changes in Korean cinema, that’s really exciting,” she said, smiling.

Park said that Korea may be on the verge of another wave, where women directors will be at the fore. More than 20 percent of the films released last year were directed by women, while 42.1 percent featured female leads, according to the Korean Film Council (KOFIC).

“When the SIWFF was created in 1997, there were only seven female filmmakers in Korea. Now, there are over 100. We’ve made huge progress,” she said. “I’m positive that female directors will gain major worldwide recognition at the Cannes International Film Festival and Academy Awards over the next decade.”

[INTERVIEW] 'Female directors will lead Korea's next wave of film auteurs'

A viewer takes a seat in a movie theater during the 22nd Seoul International Women’s Film Festival. The seating capacity has been reduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Courtesy of the SIWFF

Park believes that stories told from women’s perspectives bring crucial diversity to the film industry. “Films have always focused on men because men have controlled most aspects of the film industry since the early days of cinema. It’s time to share more diverse stories,” she said.

The chief festival director also spoke about why the SIWFF insists on using the phrase “women” when addressing the film festival. Due to the anti-feminist backlash in Korea, the mere mention of women in the festival’s name has been excoriated for so-called “reverse gender discrimination.”

A few naysayers also criticized the KOFIC’s decision to give extra points to women filmmakers in the production assistance grants program, misconstruing its affirmative action mission as reverse discrimination.

“If we think about history, many aspects of our language even, as part of the particular social structure, are gendered. For instance, the word ‘human’ has within it the masculine meaning of ‘man.’ Women are excluded. Likewise, masculine identity is attached to film festivals in general. But I understand what critics are trying to say. That’s why we believe that it’s important to try to increase our inclusivity, and to lower the threshold so that everyone can come in,” she said.

For independent, art house filmmakers, the pandemic has added a new hurdle to the already challenging task of the lack of financial support and opportunities for discussions with the audience.

Park emphasized how important it is to tell female-driven stories, adding that there are numerous women directors who deserve more praise and recognition than they are getting.

“Women are more likely to underestimate their achievements. Last year, the SIWFF had a short film production assistance program, and we offered grants of 20 million won ($17,000). But guess what happened? Most of the filmmakers who applied wrote that only 9.5 million won would be enough because they thought that cutting their budgets by over half would increase their chances of getting the grant,” she sighed.

The SIWFF prides itself for the fact that the festival has become popular not only among cinephiles but also with the general public.

“Last year, I went to the Berlin Film Festival to establish a broader network. I was surprised to learn that many women’s film festivals center on women’s activism and equality forums. Compared to those film festivals, ours is more widely popular to a general audience. It screens more than 100 films each year, attracting more than 50,000 viewers,” she said.

The 23rd edition of SIWFF opens on Aug. 26 and runs until Sept. 1.

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