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Female Characters: At the Forefront of the Film Industry

Aug 26, 2019
  • Writerby SONG Soon-jin
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The Diversification of Female Characters as the Way to Beat Korean Box Office Slump

Disney’s Aladdin has taken the third spot of the Korean box office of 2019 releases and is now 13th in the all-time charts, having brought in 12.23 million audiences in Korea. What could explain that Aladdin, which represents the biggest leap for female characters in a live-adaption update of a Disney animation, had such a big impact? The development of female characters is what lies behind this, following in the footsteps of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, as well as Ghostbusters and Mad Max: Fury Road before them. The response of the female audiences in their 20s and 30s also played a part in this, as they now constitute the main driving force in Korea’s box office. This piece will examine the current state of the Korean film industry and the evolution of female characters in movies.

Female Characters Leading Hollywood

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Marvel Studio is currently dominating the global box office. As the company is gearing up for the next 10 years, it was only natural that it would bring front and center female characters. A wave of condemnations was relayed by media outlets like Hollywood Reporter and Variety regarding the limited roles given to actresses and the absence of female directors, and the sexual abuse victims of Harvey Weinstein prompted the MeToo movement. The voices of women getting louder across all the industry have led cultural products to change. It is against this backdrop that ‘gender-swapping’ emerged as an element to reinvigorate worn-out series and genre films.

Such a broadening of female characters has far outreached the simple promotion of women to the position of protagonists and now includes attempts at getting a more thorough diversity in terms of ethnicity, age and gender identity. The great commercial success of Aladdin seems to indicate that the Korean market is ready to actively embrace female characters more than ever before. According to the 2018 Film Consumers Patterns Study (of people aged 13 to 68 residing in Korea) published by Korean Film Council (KOFIC) this last May, women watch more movies in theaters than men do (+0.6 films). Also, considering that the typical frequent moviegoer (7+ films a year) appears to be a woman between 25 and 29, while the major genres favored by these audiences are action, science-fiction and fantasy, then we can determine that 20-something women – the biggest consumers of Korean cinemas – are reliable supporters of Hollywood action.

Some of them even launched their own campaigns to support and celebrate female-led Korean movies like Herstory and Miss Baek in 2018 and this year’s Miss & Mrs. Cops. In the case of the latter, which could be regarded as a typical Korean version of gender-swapping, the film passed its break-even point thanks to a so-called “Send Your Spirit” campaign (a type of movement initiated by moviegoers wherein they would purchase tickets and offer them to other viewers in order to secure a higher screen count for the supported film) from these female audiences. Also worth mentioning is the growing interest for female Korean independence fighters, a consequence of CHOI Dong-hoon’s Assassination (2015) and its 12.7 million admissions, that led to the successive hits of the drama series Mister Sunshine and the film A Resistance (1.16 million admissions).

Reflecting this tendency, actions toward a greater importance of women can be found even within the Korean film industry. According to the 2018 Korean Film Industry Report published by KOFIC, last year Korean cinema saw a large increase in commercial films directed and led by women. Out of a total of 77 commercial titles, 10 (13%) were from female directors and 24 (31.2%) were led by women, thus constituting the highest percentage of the last five years. Similarly, the average admissions for female-directed (590,000) and female-fronted films (570,000) were up 28.8% and 41.4%, respectively, from the previous year.

Every aspect of recent news announcing production projects are raising expectations, and that’s particularly the case when it comes to female directors who have stepped up to tell women’s stories. Chief among them are Honest Candidate, Whispering Corridors Reboot: Alma Mater, and The Day I died (all translated titles). Honest Candidate, a comedy from Finding Mr. Destiny (2010) director CHANG You-jeong with RA Mi-ran and NA Moon-hee in the lead roles, follows a third-term legislator of the National Assembly and expert liar (RA Mi-ran) seeking reelection who gets into hot water when a condition compels her to only say the truth. Announced as a new start for Korea’s famous school horror series Whispering Corridors with teenage girl protagonists, Alma Mater is helmed by LEE Mi-young, with KIM Seo-hyung, KIM Hyeon-soo and CHOI Ri in the main cast. The Day I died, PARK Ji-wan’s debut feature about the police investigation of the circumstances of a suicide committed by a woman ahead of her divorce suit, has been the talk of the town for its cast that includes KIM Hye-soo, LEE Jung-eun and KIM Sun-young. Changes are also being felt within commercial genre films. Call, a thriller on two women living in different periods who come into contact through a phone, and crime action Special Praise (translated title), starring PARK So-dam, are notable examples, and announcements of new projects with prominent veteran actresses attached keep coming, such as the melodrama Full Moon (translated title) featuring KIM Hee-ae, OK Madam with UHM Jeong-hwa in the lead role, the JEON Do-yeon led thriller Beasts Clawing at Straws, and Bring Me Home, which will star LEE Young-ae.

Of course, if we look at the Korean film industry as a whole, the female characters in Korean films still have a huge mountain to climb. The 2018 Korean Film Industry Report noted that the films with female participation are lopsided in favor of the melodrama/romance genres and that the more workforce and capital are mobilized, the smaller the proportion of women in the key areas of film production is. Confirming this point, in 2019, out of three action films targeting the summer season (EXIT, The Divine Fury, The Battle: Roar to Victory), only one features a female actor in the main cast, EXIT with Yoon-a. The situation is not much different with the films releasing later this year either. The greater part of the most anticipated Korean films currently in production are still clinging to all-male casts. What could justify that we keep producing films that feature male actors within the same age category? As the yearly theater admissions are in a slump, it is time for Korean cinema to seek ways to resonate with a larger audience by offering more varied female characters.
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