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Ko - production in Busan
  • Situation for Women Directors in Korean Film Market Remains Precarious
  • by Pierce Conran /  Jan 25, 2022


    Following a lengthy period of halting progress, the Korean film industry has, in recent years, shown some demonstrable progress in the area of female representation behind the camera. Women directors have gained more exposure, been entrusted with a larger number of commercial projects, and consequently delivered a growing number of hit films at the box office.


    However, appearances can be deceiving. 


    2019 was a watershed moment for female representation on the silver screen, and though the pandemic has in many ways been disastrous for the local industry, a significant proportion of the films that have made it to theaters have been directed by women during the ongoing public health crisis. Furthermore, this year theaters will welcome the first-ever big-budget Korean film - considered to be over KRW 10 billion (USD 8.38 million) - directed by a woman.


    Given these positive indicators, how is it that the number of commercial films directed by women which are currently awaiting release or in production has taken a significant nosedive? The pandemic has had the twin effect of reducing the rate of films going into production and accelerating the shift of film talent to the small screen sector, but even if we account for these effects and assume a smaller number of productions, the shrinking ratio of male to female-directed projects tells a different story.


    In 2019, four of the top 11 local films at the box office were directed by women. These included Park Nuri’s financial thriller Money with Ryu Junyeol (#8, 3.39 million viewers), Kim Hangyeol’s romantic comedy Crazy Romance with Kong Hyojin and Kim Raewon (#10, 2.92 million viewers), and Eom Yuna’s Japanese Colonial Era drama MAL·MO·E: The Secret Mission with Yoo HaiJin and Yoon Kyesang (#11, 2.87 million viewers).


    KIM JI-YOUNG, BORN 1982 (2019) 


    Most important among them was Kim Doyoung’s debut film KIM JI-YOUNG, BORN 1982, based on the best-selling novel by Cho Namju of the same name. Starring Jung Yumi as a newly married woman who leaves her career behind to become a wife and mother and slowly descends into depression, the film arrived on a wave of anticipation and controversy.


    The film became an event picture and sparked off a national discussion about the pervasive everyday sexism that still plagues Korean society. Sympathetic viewers who saw parallels within the story to their own lives embraced the film, while a vocal chorus of male interlocutors vigorously attacked it. The debut of director Kim Doyoung, who was previously known as an actress, the film became the seventh most popular film of the year, with 3.68 million admissions, the second-highest box office score ever achieved by a woman director, behind Yim Soonrye’s Forever the Moment (2008 - 4.02 million viewers). 


    According to official records released by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC - Chairman, Park Kiyong), five of 2019’s 49 commercial films - judged to be projected with production budgets in excess of KRW 3 billion (USD 2.51 million) - were directed by women. These include the four mentioned above and director Lee Jongeun’s prestige drama Birthday with Jeon Doyeon and Sul Kyunggu, the 26th most successful Korean narrative local film of the year with 1.2 million viewers. All five films were debut works, and on the whole, were remarkably successful relative to the year’s crop of male-directed films.


    House of Hummingbird (2019) 


    Furthermore, 2019’s low-budget breakouts overwhelming skewed toward women directors, including Kim Bora’s House of Hummingbird (148,000 viewers), Trade Your Love (77,000 viewers, co-directed by Park Soozin), Yoon Gaeun’s The House of Us (56,000 viewers) and Yi Okseop’s Maggie (42,000 viewers). In all, of the 64 narrative live-action Korean films released in 2019 that welcomed over 20,000 viewers, nine boasted women directors.


    If we compare this to the previous two years when only one film directed by a woman with a budget over KRW 3 billion was released - Lee Eonhee’s The Accidental Detective 2: In Action (2018) - 2019 was a hugely successful year for women directors. The picture for the subsequent two years, however, is more ambiguous.


    If we stick to the metric of "live-action narrative features with over 20,000 theatrical admissions”, the pandemic years exhibited a marked decrease in overall titles, with 2020 and 2021 counting 37 and 38 titles, respectively, slightly more than the 64 films counted in 2019 alone. However, while the total numbers were slashed almost in half, the number of films by women directors was remarkably constant, with nine qualifying in 2020 and seven in 2021, in line with 2019’s nine. 


    Honest Candidate (2020) 


    The last pre-pandemic hit was Chang Yoojung’s election comedy Honest Candidate with Ra Miran, which welcomed 1.54 million viewers, a figure that would likely have been much higher had it not been for the onset of COVID. Months later in June, the first commercial film welcomed back to theaters was Sohn Wonpyung’s debut feature, the mystery-thriller Intruder, which recorded just over half a million viewers.


    Later in 2020, several well-received genre debuts were all released in quick succession: Cho Seulye’s mystery-thriller Diva (108,000 viewers), Hong Euijeong’s award-winning black comedy Voice of Silence (403,000 viewers), and Park Jiwan’s mystery-drama THE DAY I DIED: UNCLOSED CASE (235,000 viewers). Released during some of the most difficult months of the pandemic, all were doomed to failure.


    The rest of the list is made up of low-budget productions, including Yoon Eunkyung’s Hotel Lake (71,000 viewers), Kim Chohee’s acclaimed Lucky Chan-sil (30,000 viewers), Choi Hana’s MORE THAN FAMILY (23,000 viewers) and Yun Danbi’s breakout indie debut Moving On (23,000).


    Nothing Serious (2021) 


    A year later, the situation was even more precarious financially, with only two films, the romantic comedies Nothing Serious (603,000 viewers), the commercial debut of acclaimed indie filmmaker Jeong Gayoung, and Perhaps Love (518,000 viewers), the debut of notable character actress Cho Eunji, managing to attract over half a million viewers. Other commercial titles included Seo Yoomin’s mystery-thriller Recalled (335,000 viewers), again a commercial debut of an indie director, Hong Jiyoung’s ensemble romance New Year Blues (171,000 viewers), and Lee Miyoung’s horror WHISPERING CORRIDORS 6 : THE HUMMING (94,000 viewers). Meanwhile, the low-budget films Go Back (33,000 viewers) by Seo Eunyoung, and Hong Eunmi’s F20 (23,000 viewers) also crossed the 20,000 viewer threshold.


    Owing to the pandemic and distributors’ fears of audiences not being ready to return to theaters, the number of commercial projects either in post-production or awaiting release (according to statistics available on KOBIS [Korean Box Office Information System]) is currently unusually high. Yet among those record 51 titles, only seven are directed by women. More troubling still is the figure for films that are now officially in production (several of which have not been updated since the completion of filming), as only one out of those 34 projects is being handled by women directors.


    Given these statistics, two deductions can reasonably arrive. One is that cautious pandemic era studios, which have understandably been financing fewer projects during the uncertain COVID era, are opting not to finance new pictures by women at a higher rate than those by their male peers. The other observation we can make is that these studios are sending out the women-directed pictures that they do have in their lineups, which tend to be mid-range projects, like lambs to the slaughter, in order to test out the waters of a COVID-ravaged marketplace.


    That said, this year, we can look forward to the biggest feature film ever entrusted to a woman director, as 2022 should welcome the launch of Yim Soonrye’s kidnap drama The Point Men with Hwang Jungmin and Hyun Bin, which was shot on location in Jordan. Other upcoming films include Bi-kwang (Korean title), the sophomore film of Miss Baek (2018) director Lee Jiwon, Chang Yoojung’s sequel Honest Candidate 2 with Ra Miran, Kim Jihyeon’s comedy Jung’s Farm (translated title), Park Youngjoo’s comedy Citizen Deokhee (translated title), another Ra Miran vehicle, Jung Jiyeon’s newsroom mystery-thriller Anchor and Kim Sehwi’s mystery-drama She Died (translated title). 


    The lone film in production is Next Sohee (translated title, which reunites A Girl at My Door (2014) director and star July Jung and Bae Doona


    Looking at the streaming world, Netflix (whose production statistics are not available on KOBIS) will launch two romantic comedies from women directors this year, next month’s Love and Leashes, from director Park Hyunjin, and Bang Woori’s debut film 20th Century Girl later this year.

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