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.