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In Korea, Female Filmmakers Fight the Status Quo to Get Ahead

Actresses struggle for more roles and executives who are women demand more progress

The Bacchus Lady Korean Cinema
Courtesy of CGV Arthouse

When Yim Soon-rye (“Whistle Blower”), one of the best-known female directors in South Korea, made her debut feature “Three Friends” in 1996, she was only the sixth woman filmmaker in the entire history of Korean cinema.

Since then, the number of female filmmakers has grown, but not significantly, considering the size the Korean film industry has reached and the number of films that receive theatrical releases every year. In fact, there’s been slippage. According to the 2016 Seoul Intl. Women’s Film Festival’s trailer, the percentage of female directors in Korean films has decreased from 10.7% to 5.2% over the past five years.

The gender imbalance goes beyond filmmakers and extends into the ranks of characters and actors. Among 11 homegrown films that have passed the 10 million-admissions mark, only “The Thieves” and “Assassination” presented women characters in lead or solo roles.

In such a context, 2016 was a unique year where quite a few films presented female characters in lead roles. Among 23 Korean films that managed 1 million admissions, six titles featured actresses on top of the end credit. That’s double the number of such films released in 2015.

Top director Park Chan-wook’s lesbian romance “The Handmaiden” presented two actresses, Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri, in the lead. The period drama, which competed in Cannes last year, earned $30.2 million during its theatrical run in South Korea.

Hur Jin-ho’s “The Last Princess” featured actress Son Ye-jin as lead, and dedicated the narrative to the historical figure’s life. Earning $38.1 million during the theatrical run, “The Last Princess” became the ninth-biggest film of 2016. When the film faced a budget crisis, Son also invested $857,700 of her own money.

“Because it is very rare for a biopic of a woman to be produced, I really wanted this film to be made,” says Son.

“Familyhood” is another title in which the story revolves around a woman’s character. Top actress Kim Hye-soo played the lead role. Though not a box office player, Lee Je-Yong’s “The Bacchus Lady,” starring veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung in the lead, premiered at the Berlinale last year and was critically acclaimed when released in South Korea.

Though the circumstances might have gotten slightly better for talent, filmmakers still struggled. Only 30 out of 327 films released in 2016 were helmed by women. The vast majority of those 30 were non-commercial films.

Moreover, among those films, E. Oni’s “Missing” and Hong Ji-young’s “Will You Be There?” were the only two that managed to reach 1 million admissions. That is, however, still an increase from the previous year’s zero. Female directors’ films that made top 50 in the box office include “Missing,” “Will You Be There,” Park Hyun-jin’s “Like for Likes,” Lee Kyung-mi’s “The Truth Beneath,” Lee Yoon-jeong’s “Remember You” and Lee Eun-hui’s “Unforgettable,” which is also a sharp increase from the previous year’s only one.

“Female filmmakers did not achieve big success in terms of box office,” Park says. “But I don’t think it means we cannot make hit films.”

The number of films that involved women producers also increased from 2015’s five to 13. Box office hits such as “A Violent Prosecutor” and “The Age of Shadows” were produced or co-produced by women.

For 2017, the number may remain flat. Only four titles are known to present female characters in top lead: Kim Tae-yong’s “Misbehavior,” Jung Byung-gil’s actioner “Villainess” (working title), fest favorite Shin Su-won’s “The Chronicle of a Book,” and Lee Joo-young’s “A Single Rider.” “Book” and “Single Rider” are also directed by women filmmakers.