Women have say on what they seeThere is a scene from the film “Silmido” in which two South Korean soldiers slip off base and rape a civilian nurse. The underlying notion behind the scene was to highlight the grueling conditions suffered by “Unit 684,” a group of Army recruits who underwent intense training on an island during Park Chung Hee’s regime to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.
In the overall context, however, it wasn’t certain that the rape scene was needed to describe the unit’s process of dehumanization. That the scene was the only sequence throughout the entire film when a female actor had a significant role made some female viewers uncomfortable.
In a recent survey by the Feminist Artist Network, a group that gathers a team of female viewers and film experts every year to evaluate Korean films on how women are portrayed, this year it picked “Silmido’s” rape scene as one of the most unjustifiable sequences.
“The scene clearly provided a situation that men could only identify with from the position of a perpetrator of violence,” says Park Seong-hae, the event organizer of the Feminist Artist Network. “It portrayed sexual violence as part of the natural result of psychological repression, somehow justifying violence against women.”
The group, a collective that organizes the Women’s Film Festival in Seoul every year, mentioned other Korean films in the survey that included scenes and dialogue that they saw as problematic.
Among them were a scene where a female character from “Woman is the Future of Man” urges her boyfriend “to make her clean” after she is raped by another man, and one from “The President’s Barber” that only hints through a woman’s screams that she might have been forced to have sex with her boss.
In “Taegukgi,” the feminist group cited a female character who insisted to her lover, as she was dying, that the allegations of her infidelity were untrue. In “Samaria,” the group said director Kim Ki-duk reiterated the dualistic images of women as “Madonna/whore.” Overall, the group pointed to the repeated emphasis on macho images in Korean gangster films such as “Once Upon a Time in School,” “Raging Years” and “Mokpo, Gangster’s Paradise.”
In any country, it’s hard to measure the quality of a film through moral standards or political correctness. Yet it’s been a subject of debates among foreign critics in international film festivals that Korean directors have been particularly insensitive about scenes concerning violence against women and gender stereotypes.
Among critics both here and overseas, it was noted that sex in Korean films is often portrayed in the form of rape, which has a long tradition in Korean film history. In the 1960s, for example, geishas and rape scenes were used as common metaphors for the decadence and the repression that followed the Korean War.
But nowadays, says Choi Bo-eun, a film critic and former editor of Premiere Korea, rape scenes are frequently used in Korean films as a “dramatic set up” of a plot. She cites films by Kim Ki-duk, who won the director’s award at the Berlin Film Festival this year, which often prostitution, rape and murder as subjects.
“It’s an obvious reflection of a Korean society that sees sexuality as a remnant of violence,” Ms. Choi says. “It comes down to the subconscious state of male directors who aren’t sensitive to seeing women portrayed as victims ― that reminds us of the ultra-masculinity of Korean films.”
Some feminist film experts, however, express certain degrees of conflict between a feminist view and a critical understanding of film.
“I think there is a common consensus among industry professionals that what the Feminist Artist Network is doing deserves some attention to raise awareness about issues pertaining to women,” says Lee Myung-in, a film critic and an adviser of the Women’s Film Festival.
“At the same time, every director is telling stories of what they know. Directors like Hong Sang-soo are making blatant comments about sexual desire. Kim Ki-duk is making films about women within the limit he understands them. That’s what they do. You can’t expect them to talk about something else or force them to make films from the female audience’s point of view when their interests lie elsewhere.”
Lee Nam-hee, the secretary of the Feminist Artist Network, concurs with these views but defends the group’s survey as an attempt to examine the differences of understanding between men and women.
“Events like these are considered a negative strategy among the women’s movement, and we get many bitter comments from people about it,” Ms. Lee says. “But unless we spell it out, it’s difficult to understand sometimes why we see certain things differently, like why we see certain scenes as violent while others consider them a romantic expression.”
Violence on screen has repercussions, she says. “What shapes our fear is not only violence in reality. Sometimes we are threatened by the mere potential of violence out there. Our hope is to wait for the day when we don’t have to hold another evaluation for the women’s audience award.”
Some film experts say that the core of the problem with women’s portrayal on screen ― aside from their treatment as sexual objects ― is a lack of attention from the public. A few Korean films depicting heroines have opened nationwide within the past year, such as “Don’t Believe Her” and “She’s a Spy,” but they disappeared after a few weeks, unable to compete with Korean blockbusters that had men in the leading roles.
Still, when it comes to how women are seen on screen, directors are firmly in control, and the feminist group looks to them for change.
“The point is not to bash certain directors or works,” says Ms. Park. “Films can have various situations to suggest various meanings. The important thing is how the context of these situations [dealing with violence against women] is portrayed on screen. There is no set boundary, but it’s something directors should keep in mind.”
by Park Soo-mee