After Sexual Abuse Cases, How the #MeToo Movement Is Making Strides in South Korea

Courtesy of Cannes
'Little Forest'

In early 2018, the #MeToo movement arrived in force in South Korea, with sexual abuse cases breaking out across all sectors, but activists and organizers are now working to translate that energy into a sustained movement that can effect lasting change.

In early 2018, the #MeToo movement arrived in force in South Korea, with sexual abuse cases breaking out across all sectors, derailing the careers of prominent filmmakers such as Kim Ki-duk and previously esteemed professors, prosecutors and politicians. The movement moved into the country’s vaunted K-pop arena early this year, as attention began to be paid to the long-overlooked problem of spy-cam porn — women being filmed without their consent during intimate moments with lovers or even in public restrooms. Star singer-songwriter Jung Joon-young, 30, for example, has been arrested for filming sex acts with a dozen or so women without their knowledge and later sharing the footage with fellow famous performers. As with #MeToo, such cases caused an immediate wave of media attention, but activists and organizers are now working to translate that energy into a sustained movement that can effect lasting change.

The Korean Film Council (KOFIC), the government body for promoting local films, has been pushing a campaign to cultivate a healthy industry environment by curbing sexual discrimination and abuse. In February, the council announced that it has significantly increased the budget for a center dedicated to the cause, the Fair Environment Center, from 1.09 billion Korean won (about $958,000) in 2018 to 1.66 billion won (roughly $1.5 million) this year.

In March 2018, KOFIC and Women in Film Korea, a group advocating for the rights of female filmmakers, jointly founded the Center for Gender Equality in Korean Cinema (better known as Deun Deun Center in Korean). Deun Deun is co-directed by Yim Soonrye, one of South Korea’s few leading female auteurs (2018’s Little Forest) and Jamie Shim, CEO of Myung Films and one of the rare women producers in South Korea (2017’s I Can Speak).

Much like in Hollywood, women are significantly underrepresented in executive and creative positions in South Korea. But a recent report by KOFIC has reflected some positive trends in the industry — most notably a steady annual increase in the number of mainstream films directed by women. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of women filmmakers went up by 5.1 percent, producers by 3.6 percent, lead actresses by 7.5 percent and writers by 2.3 percent. “2018 was a meaningful year for female directors on many levels,” says a spokesperson for KOFIC.

It is all the more meaningful because many of these films directed by women performed well at the box office and include a diverse range of genres, such as an animated feature for the first time (Boing, the Secret of Super Transformation). Last year also saw the success of sleeper hits directed by women, such as Little Forest (1.57 million admissions) by Yim and Miss Baek by Lee Ji-won. While such positive developments are noteworthy, South Korea’s film industry still has vast room for improvement. Of 39 live-action movies in 2018 that were made with significant budgets, just 10 titles, or 25.6 percent, passed the Bechdel test for measuring the representation of women in fiction.

"A gender imbalance exists in the film industry of many countries, but it is especially bad in South Korea," says Yim. "There are many factors adding to the discrepancy, but I see it as ultimately an investment-distribution issue. Not everyone has to break into mainstream filmmaking, but it is a real concern that women indie filmmakers are not getting enough opportunities."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 16 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.