Friday, May 8, 2009

Yim Soon-rye, "Keeping the Vision Alive" -- Q&A at the Korea Society, 4/22/09

Over her 15-year career as a director, writer and producer, Yim Soon-rye has emerged as one of Korea’s best filmmakers. Her sensitively written, solidly character-driven features – Three Friends (1996), Waikiki Brothers (2001), and Forever the Moment (2008) – impressed critics and viewers with their emphasis on those at the margins of society struggling for dignity, respect and recognition. Yim was much more a critical favorite than a popular success for most of her career, but all that changed last year with Forever the Moment, which told the true story of the Korean women’s handball team that competed in the 2004 Athens Olympics. I reviewed this film when it played at last year’s New York Korean Film Festival; you can read what I wrote here. Forever the Moment won best picture at the Blue Dragon Film Awards and was a major hit last summer, surprising many observers who felt that a sports film, and a women’s sports film at that, had little chance at box office success. Such a turn of events may have seemed unimaginable back in the 1980’s, when Yim was an aspiring filmmaker, studying English literature in college instead of film both because of being discouraged from this pursuit as a woman and also because the field of film studies was at that time very new and undeveloped. Also, apart from such directors as Im Kwon-taek and Lee Chang-ho, the quality of much of the commercial cinema was quite wanting. Women directors and other film workers were an extreme rarity, and the circumstances for those few in the business were less than favorable. Still, Yim persevered, eventually going to Paris for the formal film studies unavailable to her in Korea. Her first major credit was as a producer on Yeo Kyun-dong’s 1994 film Out to the World, a major film of the 1990’s that anticipated the renaissance of Korean cinema later in the decade. That same year, she gained attention for her short film “Promenade in the Rain.” Yim’s first two features Three Friends and Waikiki Brothers went against the grain of what would be expected from a female filmmaker, since both of these films featured male protagonists, demonstrating that at least in the early stages of her career that she was less interested in exploring gender issues than in more universal human experiences.

However, Yim’s more recent features have tackled women’s experiences head on. Yim made a recent appearance at the Korea Society on April 22, 2009 to screen two films in which she does this. One was her short film “The ‘Weight’ of Her,” her contribution to the omnibus film If You Were Me, the first in a series of anthologies commissioned by the Human Rights Commission of Korea. Here is what I wrote on this short film when it was first shown at the 2004 New York Korean Film Festival:

In keeping with the project's aim, it is significant to note that the contributors include two of the very few working female directors in Korea. One of them, Yim Soon-rye, in the film's opener, “The 'Weight' of Her”, takes on the issue of female body image and the premium society places on a particular standard of female beauty. Yim's film is a satirical portrait of a girls' school, where the teacher's lessons reinforce the importance of maintaining a slim figure and keeping up their grooming. The teachers conduct frequent weigh-ins, resulting in a funny exchange in which a male teacher with a prominent potbelly, when confronted with his own weight problem, answers, “It doesn't matter how men look.” The punchline is that the school is actually a finishing school for room salon hostesses. The director herself appears in the film's coda, where she is subjected to a male passerby's comment about the “fat lady” directing the film.

The other film was an hour-long documentary released in 2001, Keeping the Vision Alive, a lively and informative history of women directors in Korea and their struggles to carve out a place in both a male-dominated film industry and general society. Yim’s documentary contains many valuable anecdotes from the many interviewees on screen. Most fascinating is the story of Park Nam-ok, the very first Korean female director (Widow, 1955), whose story of the making of her film sounds very much like the experiences of present-day indie filmmakers; she borrowed from relatives, and along with her crew performed multiple duties on set, from catering to cleaning, all the while carrying her baby around with her. Not only directors, but producers, cinematographers, lighting designers, editors, gaffers, and other crew members are given equal time here. The film touches on all periods of Korean cinema up to and including more recent filmmakers such as Byun Young-joo, who created one of the greatest documentary works ever made, her trilogy on the “comfort women” who were forced to sexually service Japanese soldiers during World War II: The Murmuring (1995), Habitual Sadness (1997), and My Own Breathing (1999). Byun remarks in the film that today’s lighter and more user-friendly film equipment is especially a boon to women filmmakers, making it much easier for them to be technically self-sufficient. Technical barriers to women in the film industry are remarked on by several filmmakers; many men would not allow women to learn about how cameras worked or even to touch them, treating such knowledge as closely guarded secrets.

The circumstances for women in the Korean film industry were rapidly changing even in 2001, as Yim documents, and today it’s almost a different world, since in recent years female film directors have very much increased in number, to the point that now Korea has more working women directors than any other country in Asia. These directors have contributed some very impressive films in recent years. A partial list: Jeong Jae-eun (Take Care of My Cat, The Aggressives); Byun Young-joo (Ardor, Flying Boys), Lee Jeong-hyang (Art Museum by the Zoo, The Way Home); Park Chan-ok (Jealousy is My Middle Name); Gina Kim (Gina Kim’s Video Diary, Invisible Light, Never Forever); Lee Su-yeon (The Uninvited); Pang Eun-jin (Princess Aurora); Kim Hee-jung (The Wonder Years); Kim Mee-jung (Shadows in the Palace); Kim So-young (Women’s History Trilogy); Lee Kyeong-mi (Crush and Blush) – when I met Ms. Yim after the screening and discussion, we bonded over our mutual admiration of this last film, which I hope to review here soon.

Yim’s latest film Fly, Penguin recently had its world premiere at the Jeonju International Film Festival, which ends today. Below are clips from the discussion and Q&A session following the screening at the Korea Society.

Introduction/on making "The 'Weight' of Her":

In the next two clips, Yim discusses the first Korean women filmmakers, her own experiences in the industry, the circumstances for women filmmakers today, and her reasons for making the documentary:

Yim's response to my question about her focus on male characters in Waikiki Brothers, and the genesis of the film Forever the Moment:

And in this last clip, Yim expresses her admiration for director Kim Ki-young's portrayal of female characters, and praises Lee Kyeong-mi's film Crush and Blush:

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