Korean women take place at feature helm


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BUSAN, South Korea -- When Yim Soon-rye was starting out in Korean film in 1993, she was the only woman on the camera crew. Fifteen years later, it's normal for many local productions to have a crew made up of more than half women, she says, though a majority still comes from makeup and costume teams.

"People on Korean production crews tend to be young and therefore more attuned to issues like gender discrimination," she said during an Open Talk session on "Women Directors in Korea," held during the weekend at the Pusan International Film Festival. "So you wonder why it's still so difficult for women to become directors here."

Signs of change are clear this year in Pusan's Korean Cinema Today selection, however, where six out 20 Korean films -- all feature-length -- were shot by female directors.

Even in themes, the films featured this year in were largely divided into what local reporters dubbed "male films vs. female films," referring to a genre split between male cop movies like "Public Enemy Returns" and films like "Sunny," about a woman's journey to meet her soldier husband in Vietnam.

Just as curiously, most films in this year's selection had clear gender references in their titles, including "Heartbreak Library" ("His Book" in Korean), "Oishi Man," "Sisters on the Road," "Crush and Blush" ("Ms. Carrot" in Korean), "A Man Who Was Superman" and "The Good Guy, the Bad Guy, the Weird Guy," which was titled "The Good, the Bad and the Weird" in English.

Still, women directors like Yim -- director of Korean Cinema Today's "Forever the Moment," the first sports movie made by a female director in Korea -- say that despite the gains, corporate traditions of networking in what once was one of the country's most male-dominant industries continue to make filmmaking waters difficult to navigate.

"I think many women directors find it hard to network around their investors and producers," she said, "whereas it's still more natural for many male directors here to maintain their tight network through personal relationships with the industry professionals who are still predominantly male."

About 270 members are registered in the Korean Association of Women in Film, a nonprofit organization that launched in 2000 with women in marketing, PR and film production. Among that figure, 25 are directors. The number is about one in every 10 Korean directors, considering that there are 257 members in the local Korean Film Directors Society.

"There were women directors in Korea during the 1990s," said Lee Sang-yong, a programmer of Korean films at Pusan. "But the fact that a woman director existed made a bigger issue then. Now, the positions taken by each woman director are so much more diverse and telling about the reality of women in Korean society now, and include directors of the Korean-American diaspora, like Kim So-young ('Treeless Mountain')."

Yet the same questions are being raised for many women directors now -- just like 10 years ago: Why do they often make movies about women?

Lee Kyung-mi, the director of "Crush and Blush," from the festival's Korean Cinema Today-Panorama section, gave a surprising answer at Saturday's talk: "Honestly," she said, "I don't know what men think."

Added Yim: "Male directors often tend to exaggerate or imagine the characters of women even when they have no idea about women's mentality. But I think most women are simply uninterested in subjects they are not familiar with."

Contrary to the frequent split in reactions of men and women after seeing gender-specific films like those of Hong Sang-soo and Kim Ki-duk, female directors can trigger the same response in women and men.

"When I was writing the script, because of the subtle nuances and sensibility in the heroine's character, I thought the female audiences would appreciate the movie much more than men do," Lee said. "But I was surprised to see how many men laughed at scenes where I didn't expect them to react."

Overall, producers and investors assure that genre and qualifications of directors comes first rather than gender in their selection of scripts for commercial films.

"Maybe if it had overt feminist sentiment, we couldn't have ignored commercial considerations completely," said Lee Bora, staff member at Moho Film, producer of "Crush and Blush." "But in this case, the details and comic elements of the film's narrative were something that could only be picked up by a female director, and we thought that was the major selling point of this movie."