Diversity and Women – Keys to Korean Cinema Today

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There has been a so-called “formula for hit films” in the South Korean film industry: that a successful film may boast a budget of over KRW 10 billion (7.82 million euros); feature top star cast; and is either a costume drama or action are led by male protagonists. In 2018, however, that taken-for-granted formula was subverted. Mega-budget tent pole titles with traditional hit elements failed to attract as many audiences as they had been expected to, or even required to. Instead, small to mid-sized films that broke the model in terms of cost, genre and cast managed to perform relatively well. At the same time, as the #MeToo movement has largely gained social traction in Korea last year, female filmmakers and films featuring female protagonists in a non-misogynistic light were well supported both commercially and critically. CinemAsia’s selection from Korea this year reflects such trends in the box office and production.

Little Forest
by veteran female director Yim Soon-rye was one of the unexpected successes in the South Korean box office last year. Though made with minimum budget of KRW 1.5 billion, the film not only visually comforts audiences by offering a delicately designed feast of organic food and rural landscape, but also treats them with time to take a breath and ponder on what one wants to pursue in life. Centering on a young woman who learns self-sufficiency by returning to her rural hometown after failing her exam in the city, the film is like chicken soup for the souls of young urbanites.

A Boy and Sungreen is another film from a female director. From the two protagonists’ names to their personalities, director Ahn Ju-young breaks all the stereotypes of gender roles as well as delicately sketching the subtle shades of the two inter-dependent teenagers’ emotional equilibrium. Following the boy and his friend’s journey to find his supposedly dead father, this coming-of-age film connotes that what can fill up the void left by the boy’s father may not only be a particular man, but also a form of ‘love’ from people near them.

Lee Seok-geun’s On Your Wedding Day is a romantic comedy, a genre that has not been Korean producers’ top priority for the past few years. The couple’s chronicle is a process of growth in its own right. The rollicking comedy does not display fun and delightful, yet bitter moments of their courtship only to entertain audiences or get them lost in sweet memories of first love. Despite the fact that their relationship does not lead to marriage, the film shows how every moment in their journey has developed the couple, more especially the boy, into better adults.

At first glance, Dark Figure of Crime by Kim Tae-gyoon works within the crime-thriller genre that Korean cinema excels at. The film also stars two A-list actors Kim Yoon-seok (1987: When the Day Comes) and Ju Ji-hoon (Kingdom, Along with the Gods) as a murderer and a detective. Moreover, it is backed by Showbox, one of the leading studios in the country. However, the film reveals the murderer from the very beginning, and focuses instead on depicting the psychological cat-and-mouse game between the two. The film solely relies on the detective’s conviction and commitment and the convict’s flashbacks to his serial murder. Although the director as well as the protagonists are male, the film’s sympathy for the female characters flows from not treating them as mere statistics or plot devices, but by drawing harrowing backstories of their abuse and subjugation within Korean society.

Sonia Kil