Korean film industry still a battlefield for female creators

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Korean film industry still a battlefield for female creators

A scene from director Shin Su-won's 2021 film ″Hommage″ [TWIN PLUS PARTNERS]

A scene from director Shin Su-won's 2021 film ″Hommage″ [TWIN PLUS PARTNERS]

March 8 is International Women's Day, and films either by female directors or about the historical triumphs and struggles of women, like Phyllis Nagy’s “Call Jane” (2023) and Chinonye Chukwu's “Till” (2023) or even “Holy Spider” (2022), which shines a spotlight on Iranian women’s rights, are hitting Korean theaters just in time.
However, the glass ceiling within Korea's film industry still appears a bit too thick for female filmmakers, as there is not a single domestic film opening in Korean cinemas to mark International Women’s Day 2023.
The Korean Film Council (Kofic) has numbers to back the claim. The council released a report on March 7, one day before International Women’s Day, to take a look at the Korean film industry’s gender sensitivity. According to the report, female directors accounted for 20.2 percent, female producers 31.4 percent, female screenwriters 28.6 percent and female cinematographers 11.4 percent in 2022 — all with an average 2-percentage-point decrease on year.
Main poster for ″Call Jane″ [SPECIAL MOVIE CITY]

Main poster for ″Call Jane″ [SPECIAL MOVIE CITY]

Is the glass ceiling becoming thicker by the day?
“People may think that there wouldn't be any obstacles when it comes to creating a form of art, in other words, a film, but there is this inequity within the film industry here that needs to be resolved,” said Kim Sun-a, president of Women In Film Korea, who is also a professor of film studies at Dankook University.  
She said the pandemic seemed like a time when female directors could spread their wings and seize the opportunity to play shoulder-to-shoulder with the big boys.
“Though they aren't astounding figures, there was a slight increase in the number of films by female directors and films about women during the pandemic because premieres for large-scale works and blockbusters were postponed, making room for smaller indie films to catch the attention of the public,” said Kim. “Sadly, that interest failed to continue.”
A scene from American film ″Call Jane,″ released in theaters in Korea on March. 8 for International Women's Day. [SPECIAL MOVIE CITY]

A scene from American film ″Call Jane,″ released in theaters in Korea on March. 8 for International Women's Day. [SPECIAL MOVIE CITY]

As soon as the pandemic slowed down, films by male directors shot back up, going to 160 in 2022 from 128 in 2020. Of the 30 highest-grossing domestic films last year, none were from female directors.
Part of this is likely due to the lack of mass appeal of low-budget films or films that deal with issues like women’s rights. However, Shin Su-won, a female director who has made over six feature films and whose work, namely "Circle Line" (2012), has been invited to the Cannes International Film Festival and the Berlinale, says there’s an “unspoken rule” for films by women in Korea.  
“I have heard that there is an unspoken rule in the industry that no one will invest more than 6 billion won [$4.6 million] if the film comes from a woman director,” said Shin. “I have so far made low-budget films, but I find myself stopping my own thoughts and brainstorming when it comes to stories that I think will require a big budget, like those in the fantasy or sci-fi genre. Creators should not be censoring themselves, but because of the fact that I am a woman I have been doing just that.”
Director Shin Su-won [SHIN SU-WON]

Director Shin Su-won [SHIN SU-WON]

“It’s sad, but there is still an idée fixe that big budget films, where directors can boss around dozens of staff members on set, should only be for the big guys,” said Kim. “There is a prevailing prejudice within the industry that male directors are more trustworthy and that female leadership in film is not as good. Investors and distributors trust male directors more, and the male narrative in finished works is more commercially accepted.”
The Kofic report also shows that it’s not just the number of female directors that is decreasing. The figures show that local films have also lacked diversity.
Only 10 out of the top 30 highest-grossing domestic films released last year, or 35.7 percent, passed the Bechdel test — a measure of representation of women in film developed by American author Alison Bechdel. The Bechdel test examines whether a film has at least two women talking to each other about something other than a male character, aiming to see whether female characters are shown not just in association with a male protagonist or as secondary to male characters.
A scene from American film ″Call Jane,″ released in theaters in Korea on March. 8 for International Women's Day. [SPECIAL MOVIE CITY]

A scene from American film ″Call Jane,″ released in theaters in Korea on March. 8 for International Women's Day. [SPECIAL MOVIE CITY]

Last year's result is the lowest in the past five years.
Women in Korean films were also stereotyped more last year than in previous years, according to the Kofic report.
A stereotype test by Kofic, which measures how female characters are featured in film — whether they fall to the stereotypes of being “saved” by the male characters, whether they behave indecisively and cause inconveniences to others, whether they serve only sexual purposes — showed that 39.3 percent of the highest-grossing Korean films last year stereotyped female characters.
This figure, too, had been steadily decreasing but showed a sudden surge in last year’s result, probably because of the increase in films with male-centered narratives by male directors that often stereotype female characters.
“There is a system and history of male narratives made by male creators that have been built up ever since content started being made, while the history of female narratives is relatively very short. We need to build up a consensus that female narratives, characters and stories are also important and need to be told,” said Kim.
Up until now, female characters in Korean films, dramas and video content have been limited to auxiliary roles, lamented Shin.
A scene from ″Holy Spider,″ about a woman activist in Iran [PAN CINEMA]

A scene from ″Holy Spider,″ about a woman activist in Iran [PAN CINEMA]

“Most female characters in Korean content have been depicted as someone's — a male character’s — wife, daughter or girlfriend,” said Shin. “In works on streaming services, this has changed for the better recently. But in traditional cinema and dramas this prejudice and females being reduced to beings only in association to males has prevailed. In order for more authentic female narratives to surface, we as a society need to direct our attention to a wider scope of roles for women and female narratives beyond just being minorities.”
But films cannot easily depict more women in action films or other genres when women outside fiction, in real life, are still diminished to auxiliary positions, argued Kim.
“It is necessary that the role of women in society is expanded in order for female characters to be developed further,” said Kim. “Women doing action genres or other expanded roles cannot happen just in films, when women in real life are dedicated only to caregiving labor or housework. In order to develop female narratives, it is necessary to actively support more extended female influence in society and actively support female creators within the industry now.”
As the medium of film is especially an art form characterized by collective creation, there needs to be a structural support system to heighten the status of women in the industry, Shin argued.
“I think it is necessary that we start genuinely looking at women in film as colleagues and work together without discrimination and prejudice based on gender,” said Shin. “The overall outcome of films and the industry as a whole will be better if women can freely exercise their talents as creators without these boundaries.”

BY LIM JEONG-WON [lim.jeongwon@joongang.co.kr]
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