South Korea Film Studios Are Finding a Place for "Interesting Female Personas"

Kim Hye-Soo H 2014
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Kim Hye-Soo H 2014

"It's been rather tough for Korean actresses as their roles have been largely limited to supporting characters, like the lover or mother. But things are changing little by little."

Though local films have been booming at the South Korean box office, there have been relatively few parts for actresses amid the dominance of testosterone-fueled actioners. Lee Jung-hyun, for example, turned to indie cinema because she could not find "interesting women to play" after appearing in a minor role in the box-office smash Roaring Currents.

This year, however, major studios are spinning out female-driven titles featuring top talent in a range of roles, from tragic historical figures to egotistical divas.

"It’s been rather tough for Korean actresses as their roles have been largely limited to supporting characters, like the lover or mother. But things are changing little by little," said film critic Yoon Sung-eun. The positive reception for Hollywood films centered on women does influence local filmmakers, and the success of indie films such as Alice in Earnestland also seems to be having an effect. Korean audiences always want something new, and this includes stories featuring interesting female personas.

Kim Min-hee (Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then) will star opposite budding star Kim Tae-ri in The Handmaiden, a new lesbian thriller by celebrated director Park Chan-wook inspired by the British novel Fingersmith. Set in the Japanese colonial period (1910-45), the film follows the plight of an orphan girl who is hired by a con man to win the trust of a wealthy heiress, only to end up falling for her. It is on offer at the EFM via CJ Entertainment.

Cannes winner Jeon Do-yeon (Secret Sunshine) was one of the few actresses who had a memorable presence in 2015 Korean cinema through The Shameless and the martial arts epic Memories of the Sword. She will return with A Man and a Woman, about a mother who heads to Finland to send her autistic son to a special camp and becomes passionately drawn to a fellow parent. This is Jeon’s second time working on a melodrama directed by Lee Yoon-gi, following 2008’s One Fine Day.

Kim Hye-soo, Korea’s biggest sex symbol, stood out last year in Coin Locker Girl, a female buddy film that debuted at Cannes. In the second quarter of 2016, art will imitate life as the 45-year-old takes on the role of a superstar in Familyhood. In this drama directed by Kim Tae-gon, the actress flirts with the idea of becoming a single mother as she realizes that her star wattage is fading.

A-lister Son Ye-jin (The Pirates) will take the lead in The Last Princess, a big-budget historical drama from director Hur Jin-ho. The film follows the true story of Princess Deokhye, one of the last royals of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910); she was famous for having been forced into a marriage with a Japanese aristocrat and then confined to a mental institution.

Popular actress Han Hyo-joo has stood out in two unconventional female-driven titles, the crime actioner Cold Eyes and the rom-com The Beauty Inside. This year, she will trade in her sweet, innocent image to play a seductive courtesan-artist of the Joseon Kingdom in Haeohwa. Park Heung-sik, who directed Memories of the Sword, will helm the period drama.

Superstar Ha Ji-won, known for playing everything from rom-com sweethearts to action heroines, will star in Life Risking Romance. Directed by Song Min-kyu, the genre-bending title mixes romance with thriller elements as a couple becomes entangled in a serial murder case.