In the local noir genre, female characters remain in the dark
Novelist-turned-director Cheon Myeong-kwan realized his long-time dream of entering the film industry after the release of his debut noir film “Hot Blooded,” which hit local theaters Wednesday.
The 58-year-old is well-known for his books “Whale” (2004), “Modern Family (2010) and “My Uncle, Bruce Lee” (2012).
His debut film, however, is not adapted from his own work but from author Kim Eon-soo’s 2016 novel of the same title. Set in the southeastern port city of Busan in the 1990s, the narrative revolves around a 40-year-old mobster named Hee-soo (played by Jung Woo) whose goal is to realize his dreams of wealth and power — by breaking free of the mob that he’s worked under for years.
In essence, the film is about the world of men. Although Hee-soo has the love of his life, In-sook (played by Yoon Ji-hye) by his side, he evokes better chemistry with men — In-sook’s son Ah-mi (played by Lee Hong-nae) or his ex-boss, referred to by only his surname Son (played by Kim Kap-soo).
All of the female characters that appear in the film for more than 10-seconds are sex workers, including Hee-soo’s muse, In-sook.
Wearing heavily applied make-up and revealing clothes, they take background roles in the world of mobsters, only ever acting as a trigger for the male characters to take action.
During an online press interview last week, director Cheon made no excuses for the lack of lead female characters.
“I admit that there are faults related to the female characters in this film,” he said. “I had deliberated a lot about the roles of females within the narrative. I had thought about giving them more independence or showing off deeper relationships with the males, but when I thought about the lives of these gangsters in the 90s, it wasn’t that way, nor did it fit with the storytelling of the film. I thought it was more important to represent the era’s atmosphere [...] It isn’t my personal perspective on women, but it was the gangsters’. I won’t make any excuses but I’ll keep it in mind and try to fill in the holes through other films.”
However, Cheon’s film isn’t an exception to the norm. Korean noirs tend to be particularly unfriendly toward women, merely using them as tools for storytelling to push the narrative forward — whether it’s as femme fatales accentuating their sexuality, innocent children or damsels in distress that need saving by male characters.
Film critic Cho Hye-young says that the problematic usage of female characters does not stem from the genre itself.
“When you trace the roots of the genre, it was created after World War II [1939-1945] when the U.S. soldiers returned home,” Cho said. “They couldn’t adjust themselves back into society, and the genre is the representation of their outsider instincts, but simultaneously their masculinity. The traditional film noir routinely revolves around a detective or a police investigator — men — following a mystery. And the subjects of the mystery were women. The mystery woman not only had the answer to the riddle but was a femme fatale who could put the man in danger by arousing sexual desire within him.
“The women in such films aren’t helpless. They are powerful, in possession of a secret, and know how to utilize their mystery for their own gain. However, as time passed and the genre was adapted into local cinema, it naturally came to feature its own traits: Men appear in packs and the genre expanded to include more narratives — whether it’s political dramas, thrillers, or gangster films. As the genre became more male-centric, the male characters form relationships and fight for power among themselves. Although female characters do appear as femme fatales — albeit with negative characteristics — they don’t take on the heart of the narrative [...] The problem doesn’t lie with the genre itself. It is always open to change. The heart of the problem lies in the fact that [the local film industry] continues to make the genre male-centered.”
The iconic Korean noirs that saw commercial success and are deemed as classics of the genre are films such as “Friend” (2001), which follows a 14-year friendship between four friends; “A Bittersweet Life” (2005) which revolves around a mobster named Sun-woo who is tasked with watching over his boss’s young girlfriend Hee-soo, to whom he becomes attracted; “The Man from Nowhere” (2010) which follows an ex-intelligence agency agent and a recluse who saves a young girl; “Nameless Gangster: Rules of Time” (2012) which follows a power struggle between gangsters in the 90s after the government declares a crackdown on organized crime; “New World” (2013) which centers on an undercover cop torn between his mission to defeat crime and his bond with Jung Chung, a strong candidate to succeed Korea’s largest corporate crime syndicate; “Asura: The City of Madness” (2016) which centers around a shady cop who becomes deeply involved in the corruptive practices of the city’s mayor to earn money for his terminally-ill wife; and “Deliver Us From Evil” (2020) which revolves around a retired hitman’s desperate attempt to save his daughter in Thailand while being chased by a ruthless killer who is thirsty for revenge.
“The problem with the Korean noir is that female characters have been used to portray roles that pose a setback to the path to success for males,” film critic Jeong Min-ah noted. “They [the men] have a daughter, a mother, or a sick wife [to protect] or only their [the female characters] sexuality is highlighted [...] Films that without male-centered narratives such as ‘Coinlocker Girl’  and ‘Hit-and-Run Squad’  weren’t commercially successful. Strong female characters do not seem to fit in the genre [...] However, I believe there is plenty of potential with the female characters in noirs, as seen with the protagonists in ‘Night in Paradise’ , ‘My Name’  [from Netflix], ‘The Villainess’  and ‘The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion’ .”
Film critic Kang Yoo-jung, on the other hand, believes that the proliferation of the film noir genre goes against women’s rights.
“I believe that the adaptations seen in the noir genre are due to the fear of the improvement of women’s rights, another example of gender conflict because the origin of the genre stems from the discomfort and fear of the progression of women’s rights,” Kang said. “Within the narrative structure of noir, there is no room for women nor is it possible for them to portray proper roles.
“Within the genre, women can only take on roles of a femme fatale to deceive men, and when it is adapted into Korean noir, characters such as the one portrayed by Kim Eun-hye in ‘Nameless Gangster: Rules of Time’ are instructed [by men] to take part in the crime by using her sexual appeal. The local genre is saying that these are men’s jobs and the most that women can do is to use her physical charm, or form a relationship with the male characters.”
Kang believes female-centered noirs wouldn't succeed in local cinemas due to the traditional and conventional male-centered narratives.
“I cannot say that there weren’t any instances or attempts to transform the genre, but the ones that are proven to be commercially popular in Korea are male-centered, machoistic narratives, so the existing market structure makes it difficult to present different attempts,” Kang said.
BY LEE JAE-LIM [email@example.com]