According to the Women in Film Korea Festival, the future of film is female
“As independent films broke the traditional stereotype that female-centered narratives cannot be commercially popular [this year], it was proven that there are audiences who regard them as attractive and crave such narratives. What’s more inspiring is that this wave extended to commercial films as well.”
Director Yoon Dan-bi who debuted with the film “Moving On,” made this assessment at an online panel discussion held at the Women in Film Korea 2020 Festival on Dec. 16. Co-hosted by Women in Film Korea and Korean Film Archive, the festival annually looks back on meaningful progress women made in the film industry in the year gone by.
As she’d noted, 2020 was a year in which women in films have shone brighter than ever.
Although the estimated annual number of audience members this year is expected to have plummeted 73.7 percent compared to last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, opportunities for female-centered narratives and female directors increased. Commercial films such as “Samjin Company English Class," about female employees coming together to tackle corruption in the conglomerate they work at, and political comedy “Honest Candidate” in which actor Ra Mi-ran took the lead role, each recorded 1.56 million and 1.53 million tickets sold at local box office and landed at No. 9 and 10 in the ranks of most commercially popular Korean films this year.
Debut films of rookie female directors also found themselves in the spotlight this year. Director Park Ji-wan’s “The Day I Died: Unclosed Case” was praised for the excellent performances of actors Kim Hye-soo and Lee Jung-eun while director Kim Cho-hee’s “Lucky Chan-sil,” which was released in March, was re-released last month and is also scheduled to premier in Japan next month.
Director Yoon Dan-bi’s “Moving On,” which is the tale of three generations of a family told through the eyes of a teenage girl and garnered four prizes at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) last year, received Best Screenplay at the Women in Film Korea 2020 Festival. Director Im Sun-ae’s “An Old Lady,” which centers on an elderly woman’s struggle after she was raped by a man in his 20s, and Director Kangyu Ga-ram’s documentary “Itaewon,” based on the lives of women involved in prostitution in the neighborhood of Itaewon, each received Best Director and Best Documentary at the festival. The three recipients participated at the online panel discussion and spoke about why they thought women excelled so much in this challenging year.
Progression in the industry was cited as one of the reasons as well as the creation of an environment in which female-centered films have naturally made their way to the forefront over the past four to five years. Director Yoon Ga-eun’s independent films “The World of Us” (2016) and “The House of Us” (2019), director Kim Bo-ra's "House of Hummingbird” (2019) and director Kim Do-young’s “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982,” which reaped 3.6 million ticket sales last year, are just a few which benefitted from this progression.
“In the past, [I] was afraid to front a female protagonist, but I was able to create ‘Moving On,’ receiving support and huge influence from other directors in my generation," director Yoon Dan-bi said.
“I think the number of audience members who can enjoy such narratives increased as feminism became popularized,” director Kang Yu said.
Film critic Cho Hye-young, who was the host of the panel discussion, pointed out that the keyword which highlights this year’s films from female directors is “dignity.”
“Last year and the year before that, the majority of the films were about the growth and development of teens, but the spectrum of topics and age group widened considerably as seen in films such as ‘A Bedsore,’ ‘Lucky Chan-sil,’ ‘A French Woman’ and ‘The Day I Died: Unclosed Case,’ which all feature women in middle age and above,” Cho said. “There were also films such as 'Samjin Company English Class' and 'The Call' which were created by a male director but in which narratives were strongly female-centered and in which female characters made a strong impression.”
A silver lining of the pandemic was many male-centered, big-budget films which used to dominated the box office pushed back their premiers, making room for relatively smaller-scale films to be released and gain attention.
According to an estimated annual report by the Korean Film Council released on Dec. 14, as new releases were reduced, the release and screenings of independent and art films expanded. Unlike the usual rule of thumb in which commercial success of films was decided according to the first week of box office sales, there were instances in which more audience members trickled into cinemas thanks to word-of-mouth.
“However, the top three most popular films this year are ‘The Man Standing Next,’ ‘Deliver Us From Evil’ and ‘Peninsula’ traditionally successful male-centered films,” according to another film critic Heo Nam-woong. “What’s important now is how films which have potential to be successful graft female-centered narratives [into their story].”
The Women in Film Korea 2020 Festival celebrated its 21st year this year, and the Grand Prize went to Seoul Independent Film Festival director Kim Dong-hyun. CEO Park Eun-kyung of the production company The Lamp and art director Bae Jung-yoon behind “Samjin Company English Class” each took the Best Producer and Best Design. Actor Ye Su-jeong received Best Actor for her performance in “An Old Lady,” and the Best Rookie Actor went to actor Kang Mal-geum of “Lucky Chan-sil.”
BY NA WON-JEONG [firstname.lastname@example.org]