Spotlight on Korean Directors: Yim Soon-Rye 🎥

By Tiffany Simms

Hearing the phrase “Korean entertainment,” one usually, almost instantaneously, begins envisioning clips from their favourite K-pop music video or K-drama. For a few, one of their favourite Korean films may come to mind; possibly popular action flicks from recent years, such as Train to Busan or Extreme Job. Because the Korean film industry is very focused on commercial success, rarely does one think of independent films, especially not the persons behind the camera.

Filmmaking is collaborative as there are producers, writers, gaffers, grips, editors, actors, etc., who all make the production possible. They all play a part in making what ultimately becomes the film, but every once in a while, there is an exception. Sometimes, there is one person with a role so great that they control and hold the creative liberty of the project. That person would be an auteur, “a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that the filmmaker is regarded as the author of the movie.” This person is usually the director of the film. You may be familiar with the phrase, “From the mind of…” Some popular international examples are Tim Burton, Hayao Miyazaki, Alfred Hitchcock, Christopher Nolan, and Wes Anderson. As you can see from this list, the film industry is very male-dominated. This includes the Korean film industry, too. However, there is one woman who has made a name for herself.

Yim Soon-rye (임순례) has become considered “one of the few leading female auteurs of Korean New Wave Cinema," which consists of a “generation of Korean directors who came of age as the newly democratic South Korea started to bloom culturally and artistically.” Her name is included in the list with Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Okja) and Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden). Yim is a renowned film director, screenwriter, producer, and activist. Her activism is often reflected in her work and she is known for tackling social issues of Korean society in her films.​

Just Getting Started

Yim is originally from Incheon (인천시) and a graduate of English Literature from Hanyang University and has her MA in Film Studies from Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis, where she did her thesis as a study of the world-renowned Japanese filmmaker, Kenji Mizoguchi, who is known for his usage of mise-en-scène and long takes. We can see his influence throughout Yim’s work as well. Especially, in the most recent example of Little Forest. In contrast of the popularity of action films’ style of filmmaking with lots of quick cuts, like Mizoguchi, Yim utilizes long takes and avoids cutting.

After receiving her MA abroad, she returned to Korea and entered into the filmmaking industry immediately, working as the assistant director to Yeo Kyun-dong on the dark comedy film Out to the World. A year later, she directed her first short film Promenade in the Rain and was met with positive reaction as she won both Grand Prize and Press Award at the 1st Seoul International Short Film Festival. Yim told Twitch Film about her entry into the Korean film industry. “Ten years before I made my debut, there was quite a gap in the number of female directors. In the past, if you wanted to become a director, you had to go to a prominent director and start as a production assistant and go up the latter for ten or twenty years, uncertain of where you would go.”

Yim further explains, “The film system sort of changed as I came into filmmaking, and also in the late eighties and early nineties, new producers came on board to produce new films, namely Shim Jae-myung, who is a very influential film producer today. Also, there started to be more film festivals that were screening short films: Actually, I had gotten my start because I received an award for one of my short films and that gave me a boost in my career as well.” She continues, “I would say that my start in my development as a film director came concurrently with the changes in Korean society. And even now, the roles of women in this industry goes along with what is happening socially, because we still have a lot of equality issues, sexism – which is always prevalent in Korea – so I feel like our roles ebb and flow according to that social screen that’s going on and on. There’s still a lot to improve, but I feel that it is still incrementally improving, in a way, and because I feel like there’s a lot of good young female directors that are up-and-coming, I still feel like there’s cause to be optimistic, but it’s one step at a time.”

Making a Name

Three years later, Yim made her feature film debut with Three Friends (a.k.a. Sechinku). Having creative liberty, she used the film as an opportunity to explore social issues, specifically masculinity and marginalization in Korea as it follows the lives of three young men who struggle adjusting to the social system. Concerning the storyline, Yim said, “Anyone who does not conform to the standards of society is treated as a straggler and at the same time a social outcast. I try to portray rigid social attitudes through our uniformed values, family and social violence, and carelessness against the social background of overrated college entrance exams and military culture.” In the style of Italian Neorealism, Yim emphasized a strong sense of realism with her approach of filmmaking by using static camera and casting non-professional actors to achieve authenticity of the story. Vittorio De Sica also casted untrained actors for his renowned film Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief). Again, she was met with a positive reaction as it won the NETPAC Award at the 6th Pusan International Film Festival.

Her second film might be one of her most well-known despite low ticket sales. The drama about a struggling nightclub band, Waikiki Brothers (와이키키 브라더스) ended up being critically-acclaimed after it was the opening film of the 2001 Jeonju International Film Festival. Critic Shim Young-seop praised Yim's style of long takes as a “manifestation of the director's deep love for her characters.” He continued, "You can see how much (director) Yim feels attached to the world. Though the characters are deceived by reality, they cannot hate the world; they still love it. Small-budgeted but artistic films such as Waikiki Brothers, films that depict modern ordinary Koreans as they truly are, those are the best movies and the most authentically Korean." The film would earn Yim more awards, including Best Film at the 38th Baeksang Arts Award. Along with these successes, the film was also adapted for the stage as a musical, Go! Waikiki Brothers!.

Yim continually uses filmmaking as a medium to express her worldview and use it as a platform to make commentary on social issues. After the success of Waikiki Brothers, she worked on Keeping the Vision Alive, a documentary discussing women and sexism of the Korean film industry.​ The film also acted as an “homage to both pioneers such as Park Nam-ok and Hwang Hye-mi, and contemporary directors like Byun Young-joo and Jang Hee-sun.” Yim prefers to steer from the popular blockbuster style of filmmaking and focus on realistic, yet heartwarming, personal stories.​

Yim also participated in the omnibus, If You Were Me, funded by NHRCK. Each film focused on a different human rights issue, making Yim a perfect candidate for the project as her short film The Weight of Her focused on body image as a high school girl feels that she must get plastic surgery if she wants to get hired.

Yim also produced A Smile, the feature directorial debut of female Korean director Park Kyung-hee. Additionally, Yim will sometimes make cameo appearances in her colleagues’ work, as is seen in Park's short film Under a Big Tree.

Yim’s third feature film Forever the Moment, titled in Korean "The Best Moment of Our Lives," is based on the true story of the South Korean women's national handball team that won the silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Today, it is known as Yim’s most commercially successful film yet as she combined the contrast of her arthouse style of filmmaking with the past-paced sports genre. Despite this experimentation, the story remained true to Yim’s element as it explored many social issues, including discrimination, job insecurity, debt, infertility, and divorce. Along with the commercial success, it won Best Film at the 44th Baeksang Arts Awards and the 29th Blue Dragon Film Awards.

Yim collaborated with the NHRCK again, but, this time, for her fourth feature Fly, Penguin. The film consists of four segments, each focusing on a different issue: “a mother's obsession with her son's English education, the ostracism at work of an office employee because he's a vegetarian and doesn't drink alcohol, the estrangement of a man from his family whom he financially supports overseas, and divorce between a couple in their sixties.”

Her fifth film is an adaptation of from Kim Do-yeon's novel Rolling Home with a Bull. Its story focuses on a road trip of failed poet.

Yim’s animal rights activism was reflected in her production of the omnibus film Sorry, Thanks (Thank You and I'm Sorry), exploring relationships between humans and their pets. In her own short film, Cat's Kiss, “a father is at odds with his daughter because of her propensity for collecting stray cats, until he finds himself growing to care for them.”

Yim also directed a Korean dubbed version of the 2002 Japanese film Oriume, which touches on a family’s struggle with Alzheimer's disease.

Yim continued with feature-filmmaking with the Okuda Hideo's novel adaptation South Bound (also known as Run to the South). The film held anti-capitalist and anti-establishment undertones as the protagonist has a strong disdain for mainstream society. Despite these heavy themes, Yim delivered the story in a light-hearted manner. She said, "Our society is full of uncertainties and ferocious competition. ‘The South’ here means an ideal land. Every one dreams of an ideal place, but only a few manage to fulfill their dream. The family in South Bound is willing to step ahead and achieve what they want by breaking away from social norms and traditions.”

Her next directorial role was for The Whistleblower, based on the true story of Hwang Woo-suk, known for his controversy in which he stated he had “successfully carried out experiments cloning human embryonic stem cells.” Later, it would become known as one of the biggest scientific frauds. Yim’s goal for this story was to focus on the journalist who “rightfully battles for the truth, despite political pressure and public condemnation.” Yim showcased her adaptability as this film is very different from the majority of her work with a much faster paced style of filmmaking. She explained that “in order to counter the weight of the subject, I made the choice to make it cinematically a little lighter, so, like a lot of close-ups, the music, a lot of movement in the camera.”

Upon her return from a short hiatus, Yim directed her latest film, Little Forest. It is an adaptation of the Japanese film duology which is an adaptation of Daisuke Igarashi’s manga series of the same name. It is the story of a young woman who returns to her country life after a bout in the city. She stated that the reason she wanted to do this project was to help “heal and soothe the young generation of Korea, who is currently going through hard times.”

Despite the simple plot line, the film reflects a lot of Yim’s own character. Despite her job demanding she works in the city, Yim prefers a country-side lifestyle. Additionally, although Little Forest focuses a lot on traditional Korean cuisine which can often be meat-focused, the film’s menu is meat-free with the exception of katsuobushi as Yim identifies as a pescatarian.

A Woman in a Man’s World

As mentioned previously, Yim has earned several awards for her work, including Woman Filmmaker of the Year in 2008.​ Hiroko Yamazaki featured her in his 2007 documentary Viva! Women Directors.

Additionally, Yim is one of the leaders behind the Korean Film Council and Women In Film Korea launch of the Centre for Gender Equality in Korean Film, "leading the organization designed to combat inequality in the film industry and deal with sexual harassment and violence."​

She has said that she thinks that the “biggest challenge for the female filmmakers in Korea is the distribution system, run by big investors and multiplex systems. They prefer big-budget blockbusters, while female filmmakers usually are better with personal stories and different narratives and structures. That is why female filmmakers and directors are suffering. The wave of feminism might help change how the films portray male and female characters, but generally speaking, industry-wise, I don't think that there will be a huge change happening any time soon."

Her advice for aspiring female filmmakers in the competitive and male-dominated industry is this: create your own vision. “I do feel that female directors are at a disadvantage when it comes to networking because it’s very male-dominated. The activities that are involved in networking are usually male-oriented activities, so we are at a disadvantage, but I feel that always, investors and producers are still looking for films that can have a certain type of artistic excellence to them, and not just films that are geared toward making money. So, I feel that if you can get your hands on a screenplay that is creative and that is new and fresh, or if you are able to write a screenplay that is new and interesting, I feel like if you start from that point, you’ll have more luck in being able to create your own vision.”

Yim’s works and messages can inspire not only aspiring female filmmakers but any person in any field to live a more authentic lifestyle despite society’s pressures. Everyone has the power to create their own vision for their life.

What is your favourite Yim Soon-Rye film? Which Korean film or director would you like us to highlight next? Let us know in the comments below!

For more about Yim Soon-Rye and Little Forest, check out:

Cover Image: Yim Soon-rye
Written by Tiffany Simms

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