Meet Yim Soon-Rye, the Trailblazing Female Director of Korean Cinema
One cannot talk about celebrated directors in South Korea without naming director Yim Soon-rye, one of the few leading female auteurs of the Korean New Wave cinema. With more than three decades in the movie industry, director Yim has created some of the most renowned films from Korean cinema.
Waikiki Brothers, Forever the Moment and Little Forest have been praised for their exploration of gender, family, nature, social class and cultural norms. When she made her directorial debut in 1996 with the movie, Three Friends, she was the only sixth woman filmmaker in the history of Korean cinema and was only one of the two female filmmakers during the year she debuted. Today, she remains a force and stands as one of the most prolific directors of her time—a standout in the still male-dominated Korean film industry.
Yim’s latest accolade is being named the 2021 director in focus for the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. As it gets underway, Yim chats with us about being a pioneer in her field, how the film industry has changed (or not) over the years and what’s the most rewarding about being a director.
Can you describe how you got into filmmaking?
In the beginning, I’ve always liked watching films as an audience, but I have never thought of being a director until I watched some French new auteur films. I fell in love with those films and then I had the chance to pursue my postgraduate degree in France. After that, I decided that I should become a director.
What’s your proudest career moment?
I’m not sure if this is the right answer. When I made the film, Forever the Moment more than 10 years ago, it was very successful at the box office. But for me, I think my other movie, Little Forest, means a lot. Because when I made Little Forest, I wanted to send my comfort and regards to the young generation. I hope it can serve as a comfort for them. Some viewers told me that they have watched the movie four or five times or even 10 times. And I feel very satisfied with that.
What’s it like being a woman in your field?
The Korean film industry is a very male-centred industry and there’s no way you can escape this. When female directors are working on site, they will remind themselves not to be that feminine in order to look or like masculine or in order to show that they can work properly as it can be physically challenging for female directors.
For me, I’m quite lucky because I haven’t really experienced many misconceptions, prejudice or negative things because I mainly wrote scripts at the beginning of my career. But for some of the female filmmakers, their experience is quite different. For example, I think making connections is very important as having a solid network means everything in the Korean film industry.
When a female director finishes a script, she wants to approach a producer, or she wants to approach her close friends or the investors so she has to use her connections. And for men, I think that it’s easier for them to establish this kind of national network of connections because they always go out to drink and socialise. They also do a lot of sports, games and activities together. Through these activities, they established their relationships spontaneously. But this is typically a little bit difficult for women as they have domestic responsibilities.
Still, I think this situation doesn’t only exist in the Korean film industry but also in other countries. These days, everybody’s talking about making big productions and doing a lot of blockbusters. And you can see that they are mostly doing action films because they can earn well in the box offices. But this kind of genre is relatively new to the female directors and they are always male-centred. The audience also expects that male directors tend to do blockbusters or action movies while female directors specialised in arthouse movies or dramas. This is something that we have to change.
Your movie, Waikiki Brothers was praised for its long takes to show the connection between the characters while your later film, Forever the Moment combined arthouse with excitement thanks to its sports element. How do you think your directing style has changed over the years?
Forever the Moment and also Waikiki Brothers are actually both low budget films. But unlike Waikiki Brothers, Forever the Moment is a comparatively commercial film so I told myself that it has to be successful. I was really stressed at that time because Waikiki Brothers was not that successful in the box office although it received a lot of very good comments and praises. My editor and the investors were also stressed after Waikiki Brothers so we really pushed for Forever the Moment to be successful in the box office, otherwise, it will be difficult for me to continue my career. I wasn’t sure if I can take any other films if the movie failed.
I had to change my style. In Waikiki Brothers, I used a lot of long takes but in Forever the Moment I gave up the long takes and used a lot of close-ups instead. I also put in music which I didn’t do much in Waikiki Brothers. I wanted to get closer to the audience for them to understand the film more easily so that they can enjoy it.
Where do you find inspiration for the stories that you tell?
When I make a film, there are two ways that I approach it. Sometimes I’m a producer rather than a director so I have to plan the story. But sometimes I’m the director so I will get story proposals from other producers or companies. But no matter what, I always follow my own preferences and choose stories that I like. But the other films that I plan or those that I get from others, they may be related to an incident or real event. It may be something about a story that I heard or it may be something I saw on TV so my inspiration is quite diversified.
I want the praise to shift to the younger female directors and not just me. A lot of female directors who are in their thirties or forties make a lot of great films and they also deserve the same title— Director Yim Soon-rye
You’re more known for heartfelt stories and arthouse movies rather than big-budget movies. Has it ever been a challenge to focus on that rather than big-budget ones as a female filmmaker?
Since Forever the Moment was a commercially successful film at that time, I made didn’t really make low budget films anymore after that. The budget scale has always been similar to a medium project or a high budget movie. For example, the film that I am working on right now is called The Point Men which is poised as a blockbuster movie and has a very big budget. When I did the Whistle Blower in 2014, it was also a high-scale project. And after that, I made Little Forest which was relatively considered a low budget film, so it certainly fell from high budget to a low budget film again. But for me, I don’t find it particularly challenging because I don’t see budget as a limitation. I can always cope with budget issues. For me, what most what matters the most is the subject matter and story.
You’re one of the most well-known and celebrated female filmmakers in South Korea. Do you feel the pressure when up and coming female filmmakers say that look up to you?
No, I’ve never felt pressured by that. Of course, many people say “Director Yim Soon-rye is the most famous female director in South Korea. She made the most number of commercially successful films as a female filmmaker,” but for me, I really hope that this description can change. I want the praise to shift to the younger female directors and not just me. A lot of female directors who are in their thirties or forties make a lot of great films and they also deserve the same title.
How has the Korean film industry changed over the years?
I think things have been a lot better than before, compared to when I was just starting. There are so many talented filmmakers in South Korea right now and a lot of them are women. When you look at the producers and crew members who work around the film industry, they are also a lot of talented women. Just look at the producer of Parasite—[Miky Lee] is an outstanding woman herself.
When you look at genre-specific films, there are also more and more up and coming from female film directors in that area. But I think what needs improvement is the technical side. When we talk about the technicalities what we mean is cinematography and lighting for example. Certainly, the industry is improving more and more but I think it has to speed up as we’re still lagging behind.
What’s most rewarding about being a director?
The most rewarding moment part is when someone tells me, “Oh, director Yim, your movie has changed my life.” It’s been 20 years since Waikiki Brothers but people still tell me that they find comfort when they saw the movie today. When I also made Little Forest, some viewers told me that it allowed him to rethink and reposition their life, made them a more positive person and even felt healed after watching. I think this is the most rewarding part of my job.
You’re the director in focus at this year’s Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. What do you hope Hong Kong audiences can take away from watching your movies?
Back in the 70s to 90s, Hong Kong films have been very popular in South Korea. A lot of Korean people and cinephiles really love Hong Kong movies as can identify with the stories in the films. For this film festival, it’s Hong Kong audiences turn to watch Korean movies so I hope that they’ll feel just like we did in the past.
I hope they can also identify with the story and with the lives of the people that were portrayed in the films. In recent years, Korean people have experienced a lot of hardships and I think Hong Kong people are also experiencing similar hardships or difficulties. This is why I hope that when Hong Kong audiences watch my films or watch other Korean films, they can get some comfort through the stories and words and wish for the best to come.
What would you say to a woman who wants to break into your field?
The most important thing is to trust your talent and keep your passion alive. Don’t give up and then remain confident. Never giving up is the most important thing in this industry.
The Hong Kong Asian Film Festival runs until November 14, 2021. Please visit hkaff.asia for more details.
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