Critically Speaking

Reviewing Movies Seems So Easy. Just Watch a Film, Then Write, Right? Not Quite

Nov 30,2001
The bane of filmmakers' existence is critics. After moviemakers put their hearts, souls and cash into their creations, their reward is often sharp, degrading reviews in the papers.

The influence of top movie critics is hard to overstate; their judgments can launch directors to stardom or pull the rug out from underneath them. The late Pauline Kael, who did reviews for the New Yorker magazine, was one such critic.

Ms. Kael is so admired that a group called the "Kaelites" came to be. Ms. Kael died in September. Korean cinephiles mourned her death, and were also sad that she won't be around to see the rise of the local industry. Two local critics seeking to achieve the prominence Ms. Kael did are Yu Gina and Sim Young-seop.

Though they write for the same publication, the two women critics do not have lunch together.

Yu Gina's office, packed with rows and rows of books and videotapes, looks more like a scholar's than a movie reviewer's. Ms. Yu is known as a serious, straightforward professional in her work. When asked by the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition how she started her career, she said, "At a certain point, people simply started calling me a critic."

Ms. Yu entered the public eye in the early 1990s after doing a few guest movie reviews on TV shows. She began to be known as one of the few local critics who had studied film outside of Korea. Those critics, most of whom had studied in France, were called the "new wave." Ms. Yu represented a departure from the status quo: At that time, most critics were nonexperts from newspapers' culture sections who happened to cover movies. With more exposure on TV programs, Ms. Yu gained a reputation as a knowledgeable critic reviewing movies from a decidedly feminist angle. Now a professor, she regularly submits reviews to the film magazine Cine 21.

While in France in the 1980s, she worked with the organizers of the Cannes and Nantes International Film Festivals and other programs involving Korean films. She said non-Koreans then had negative stereotypes about films from the peninsula. "I was always asked by foreign journalists why the sex scenes in Korean films portray a woman as an object that is there to rape and abuse," she said. "That was disturbing and even humiliating."

That and other cliches are less seen these days. "I think the Korean movie industry has been restructured and reborn healthier," she said, citing "Shiri" (1999) and "Chingu" ("Friends," 2001) as two films with solid plots and no gratuitous sex. But Ms. Yu is still unhappy with the state of the industry. Explaining her view that modern film reflects the subconscious sentiments of society, she took a sip of hot ginger tea and said, "In that sense, watching Korean films is like having a membership in a men-only club."

Ms. Yu approaches her reviews as a feminist as well as a viewer. Although, she's changed since the days when she was perceived as an elite, didactic critic, she still decries patriarchal dominance. "It's harder for a woman to lead a decent life, not only in Korea but all over the world," she said, lighting a menthol cigarette. Ms. Yu labels the latest Korean films as a monotonous parade of gangster stories that satisfy men's need to feel all-powerful. "My Wife Is a Gangster" (2001), which placed a woman as the macho protagonist, only created a woman borne of a male fantasy, she said.

But Ms. Yu is not overly harsh in her condemnation of the industry. "It's like how people prefer unhealthy food like marshmallows rather than healthy food like spinach," she said. "They don't go to the movies to read an ethics textbook."

As for the few artistic films made locally, their problem is shoddy marketing, Ms. Yu said. Reassuming her feminist stance, she said, "I sometimes get the impression that the Korean movie scene is getting worse." Since the economic crisis, which also damaged the foundation of the patriarchal social structure, men are clinging to past notions of power, influencing pop culture, she said. "Our obsolete culture, especially how its manifested in movies, needs to be done away with." She stubbed out her cigarette. "After all, every woman, or at least every woman smart enough to be aware of her harsh reality, is a feminist."

If you buy Ms. Yu's theory that every smart woman is a feminist, Sim Young-seop must be a dim bulb, for she told the JoongAng Ilbo Edition, "I love men too much to be a feminist." Having recently published a collection of essays and reviews, "Cinema, the Trip of My Soul," Ms. Sim describes herself as a consultant who provides in-depth knowledge to moviegoers. To Ms. Yu's rebuke of macho films, she was sarcastic. "Isn't that cute? Well, as far as I'm concerned it is," she said, sipping jasmine tea. "I mean it's pitiful how they spend all their effort to fight against an influence that's dying anyway."

This different approach is easy to understand when you contrast the two critics' backgrounds. While Ms. Yu was grooming herself to be a movie expert from her teens, Ms. Sim started reviewing films as a hobby at age 31. After graduating from Korea University with a degree in clinical psychology, she embarked on a career as a therapist. "Gradually I realized that there were similarities between the mentality of my patients and that of the movies," she said. "My grounding in psychology gave me the instincts to read a film and its director's spiritual world."

As examples of directors' spiritual undertones, she cites the climax of "Thelma and Louise," where the two heroines drive off a cliff, which is analyzed as a return to the womb; and the director David Lynch's films, which portray a hidden world where the energy of love, "Eros," and the energy of death, "Thanatos," are taken to extremes. "I always watch a movie at least three times if I'm writing a review," she said. "First I watch as a viewer, not taking notes. But then I try to read the film, considering the text, cinematography and so on."

She first started writing reviews in 1997 on Internet sites, developing a loyal following. In 1998, she was honored with an award by the local movie magazine Cine 21 for her skills. She still regularly contributes reviews to the magazine. "Though I started pretty late compared with other critics, my ultimate goal is to be remembered as a movie critic," she said, reverting to layman's terms after a good five minutes of psychobabble.

From her position as a critic witnessing the ascent of the local film industry, Ms. Sim said she expects Korean movies to undergo plenty more significant changes: A film will crack the 10 million figure in ticket sales before long, unseating "Friends," which sold 8 million, she predicted.

Also, the influx of more capital will render the industry bigger, akin to the transition a midsize company goes through before becoming a conglomerate. "One thing is clear about that development," she said, "The big-selling movies will be dull and flat."

Likewise, Ms. Sim opined that the industry has progressed in terms of quantity, but not necessarily in quality. Once gangster movies like "Friends" took off, mediocre imitations flooded in. "This could present a worse problem," she said, "especially when you consider how the Hong Kong film industry broke down following a similar chain of events." Still, Ms. Sim sees hope in some small-budgeted but artistic films such as the recent "Waikiki Brothers," directed by Im Sun-rye. "The films that depict modern ordinary Koreans as they truly are, those are the best movies and the most authentically Korean."

Asked again about Ms. Yu's feminist perspective, Ms. Sim responded in an indirect way: "I'm afraid that trying to solve the problems in local films from the feminist viewpoint alone won't make them any better."

by Chun Su-jin

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