Lately, it seems that showcasing underrepresented Korean female filmmakers is finally on the agenda of UK festivals. At the latest edition of the BFI London Film Festival, all but one of the featured titles were by a female director, mirroring a much-awaited turn of the tide in Korean cinema. As noted by director Kim Bo-ra in an interview with Little White Lies, 2018 saw the most prominent festival in South Korea — the Busan International Film Festival — finally programming a great deal of female-directed films. Between last year and 2019, the number of women filmmakers debuting on the silver screen has definitely been on the rise.
There’s a specific festival that largely anticipated this trend. Back in 2016, the London Korean Film Festival presented a strand dedicated exclusively to female filmmakers, the unsung heroes of every country’s cinema. At the time, the festival presented 12 titles spanning from 1955 to 2016, attempting to cast much-needed light on the works of unjustly overlooked women directors. From that edition onwards, a “Women’s Voices” section has become a programme asset for emerging and established filmmakers. This year, to celebrate 100 years of Korean cinema, the LKFF spotlighted four first-time female directors and a heterogeneous selection of works about social issues in Korean society.
In Cha Sung-duk’s debut, Young-ju (2018), the title character is an adolescent girl who needs to tend to her younger brother. After their parents died in a car accident, their only aunt keeps trying to take advantage of their predicament to sell the family’s flat, so Young-ju must survive in the merciless world of the adults. Sung-duk’s’ film is an exquisite work of fine sensibility, perfectly tuned to eviscerate a girl’s appetite for exacting revenge for her parent’s death, and to explore her sense of responsibility for keeping her family together. As the polar forces balance Young-ju’s rhythm, there are moments of heart-wrenching warmth scattered throughout, especially when Young-ju desperately tries to overcome the crude mixture of grief and anger harbouring in her heart by forging a new familial bond with the woman who accidentally took her parents’ lives. Young-ju eventually cracks while acting as a substitute mother at home, and it’s impressive how Kim Hyang-gi comfortably masters her character’s emotional burden by delivering a thoroughly convincing performance that carries the entire film. At the same time, Cha proves to be a gifted director and screenwriter. Young-ju is reminiscent of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows with its revenge story tinged with even darker hues.
Bringing together another couple of current issues that Korean society is facing — caregiving and immigrant labour — Shim Hye-jung’s A Bedsore (2018) frames an exasperated family on the verge of a decisive fracture after their bedridden mother has developed a festering bedsore. Focusing on a successful career woman living a rich but shallow marriage and her derelict and spiteful brother who works in a grocery shop with his wife, the film shows the difficulties of tending to a sick mother when both children are taken with their daily lives, and society doesn’t expect husbands to be fully invested in assisting their spouses in need. Enter the caregiver, a sloppy and garrulous 40-something Korean Chinese immigrant who tries to find her lawful place in an unfamiliar society. Where the bedsore becomes the symbol of a deteriorating family, the established dynamics begin to crumble. It’s with a focused eye that Shim captures each of her characters’ idiosyncrasies, and although she never presents any of them as falling short, it’s clear that A Bedsore questions the ethics of looking after sick and elderly people. The result is an ambitious film that occasionally hits home, but one that could have used a bit more teeth.
In Ahn Ju-Young’s playful debut, A Boy and Sungreen, Bo-hee grew up without a father — who died when Bo-hee was a child, or at least that’s what his mother repeatedly tells him. When visiting his step-sister’s house, Bo-hee accidentally learns that his father never actually died, so his whereabouts is the mystery the boy now needs to solve. Shy, demure and prone to frequent, stress-induced fainting fits, Bo-hee doesn’t incarnate the stereotypical strong and imposing male lead. Instead, he represents a different kind of masculinity, a boy who doesn’t need to bully or make fun of others to prevail but rather prefers to show kindness and genuine emotions. Whereas Ahn’s debut leans on charting a tender love story between Bo-hee and his best friend Nok-yang (the Sungreen of the title, which is exactly the meaning of her name), its main focus lies within Bo-hee’s quest to find his father. Building an elaborate yet cohesive story, directed with meticulous care and acumen, Ahn successfully makes cinema a big part of her debut feature. Not only is Nok-yang a wannabe filmmaker who constantly shoots things on her smartphone, Bo-hee meets with various industry figures: a penniless actor, an old college friend to whom he used to show his scripts and a university professor. As with every coming-of-age story, it’s the hunt — not the prize waiting at the very end — that’s empowering.
Three generations of women overcome loss and absence in Young Sun Noh’s touching documentary debut Yukiko. Named after the made-up name the director gave to the grandmother she has never met, the film is an acutely intimate first-person letter to the two most important women in her life: a distant mother with whom only a feeble shadow of a relationship exists, and her grandmother, whose life she tries to retrace. When Yukiko is not indulging in poetic static shots of the windswept nature surrounding Noh’s mother’s house, it is enriched by archival footage of the Korean War, which gives the film its historical context. After being impregnated by a Korean man she fell in love with, Noh’s grandmother gave birth to her daughter in 1950s Pyongyang before coming back to Japan and building a different life. Wearing her Japanese heritage as a badge of shame, the director’s mother rarely talked about her own estranged mother and ending up severing ties with her daughter. As (personal) history repeats itself, Noh visits the care centre in Okinawa where her grandmother died, and tries to connect even more with the memory of her. There, she meets with local elders and a woman who shares her unsettling wartime past. Deeply personal and yet intimately majestic, Yukiko ties real life with a fictitious reconstruction of a family member’s persona.
“Can you mourn for a person of whom you have no memory?” asks Yukiko’s director. As shown by the other London Korean Film Festival titles, not only can we mourn for such a person, but we can also long, reach for and eventually let go of them.
Serena Scateni (@29s____) is a film critic based in Edinburgh. She regularly contributes to Take One and has written for The Skinny and Screen Queens. Serena is a Japanese cinema enthusiast and usually ends up watching all the East-Asian films screening at festivals.