It was nice to end the wonderful Year of 12 Directors, with a month devoted to the films of a female director, YIM Soon-rye (임순례). I didn’t make the first screening which was Waikiki Brothers (와이키키 브라더스: 2001), Director YIM’s second feature film, but managed to catch the other three films that were shown. While I wasn’t that keen on Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간: 2008) – probably because I am not a fan of sports based films – I really enjoyed both Fly Penguin (날아라 펭귄: 2009) and Rolling Home with a Bull (소와 함께 여행하는 법: 2010) and it was great to have the opportunity to meet and talk to Director YIM before the screening of the later at the Apollo Cinema on the 20th December. Director YIM’s films focus on marginal characters and identities and as such can be considered within the broad banner of social issue cinema. While her primary focus is not on the oppression suffered by women under patriarchal capitalism, she does bring a sense of truth and authenticity to her female characters, who are more rounded and complex than generally found in female centered films by male directors that struggle to find a midway path between the virgin/whore binary or the good wife/the new woman, and in which women’s voices are often appropriated in order to construct/reconstruct a viable and sometimes violent masculinity. Poignant moments in Forever the Moment tell of an authentic female experience, from not being acknowledged as authoritative or as being able to be in a position of power and/or being torn between the seemingly exclusive roles of being a good wife and an independent woman. In Fly Penguin, two of the interlinked stories concern woman’s struggle to be heard in both the domestic – the home – and the public – the workplace, while in Rolling Home with a Bull, a young woman helps guide a would be poet on his journey to spiritual enlightenment.
It is not surprising therefore to learn that Director YIM had participated in the first Human Rights omnibus film, If You Were Me/ 여섯개의 시선 in 2003, with The Weight of Her, a short film about female students being forced to change their appearances – lose weight and/or have plastic surgery – in order to accord with the dictates of compulsory femininity under a patriarchal society (there have been four other films in the series since, including an anime film). Director YIM has a cameo appearance at the end of The Weight of Her, juxtaposing reality and fiction, and foregrounding the centrality of image as constitutive of female identity in contemporary South Korea.
Meeting the Director
Before the screening of Rolling Home with a Bull, I was invited along with other critics/reviewers to meet Director YIM for a group interview. A number of us, including myself, were interested in her experiences as a female director and her feelings regarding responsibility to women to deal with specifically female issues/identities (this came up again in the Q&A session with Tony Rayns after the screening). Director YIM pointed out that her films did not deal specifically with female experiences/identities, and that in fact she was as interested -if not more so – with male identities and in particularly oppressed male identity and the violence such oppression often results in. I think for a woman, it is always exciting to meet a female director – as there are still so few of them relatively – and there is a need (for me at least) to see the representation of woman outside of patriarchal constraints, fears and desire. I think this need is difficult for some male critics (including Tony Rayns) to understand. It is not that we want female directors to be limited to telling female stories (and I am not being essentialist here, I think it is our experiences as being woman that unites us in a multitude of complex and difficult ways) but we want to be able to connect to female characters on screen rather than disconnect.
Director YIM pointed out that when she started in film in 1996, she was the only female director, and therefore there was pressure on her to direct female-orientated if not feminist films. However these days there are feminist film directors in South Korea who have emerged over the last ten years, and this has taken the pressure of her. Interestingly enough – and in opposition to some of the articles I have read on Korean cinema – Director YIM said that there are no more female directors today in South Korea than when 10 years ago. However, in terms of people involved in the making of films including production staff and editors, the industry is divided equally 50/50 . While this demonstrates a significant shift in gender relations in the film industry, it does not take away from the fact that there is a shortage of woman at the helm of the industry. (There will be a link to the full transcript of the group interview in due course).
It was such a pleasure to meet Director YIM and was a wonderful end to a great year of Korean Cinema in London courtesy of the Korean Cultural Centre in London and the London Korean Film Festival. I am looking forward to what 2013 holds for Korean Cinema with a great deal of anticipation.