Filming Against the Odds: Five Films, Four Women Directors

The second season of KCC film nights for 2021 – still online only for the moment – is curated and introduced by Mark Morris:

Filming Against the Odds

KCC YouTube Channel, 14 May – 9 July 2021

Filming Against the Odds poster

Now in its 13th year, Korean Film Nights continues in 2021 with a second instalment – exploring pioneering female directors. In a special collaboration with the Korean Film Archive, the Korean Cultural Centre UK will release five films from four landmark directors, aiming to spotlight those who revealedthe existence and vision that the dominant gaze did not show, particularly directors who started their activities before feminist discussions began in Korea in the 1990s. All films will be free to watch and hosted on the KCCUK Youtube channel, they will be released every two weeks from 14th May. This season follows the tradition of the London Korean Film Festival, which dedicates a strand each year to Women’s Voices.

Our season includes the UK premiere of two films by Choi Eun-hee, Daughter-In-Law and A Princess’ One Sided Love, both unreleased in this country for over 50 years. Both costume dramas, Daughter-In-Law displays a real warmth and affection in its unlikely central relationship. The humorous A Princess’ One Sided Love stars a wildly popular Nam Jeong-im at the height of her career. Choi Eun-hee herself has a remarkable backstory, starting her career as an actress and becoming one of the biggest stars of Korean cinema in the fifties and sixties until she was abducted in 1978 and forced to make films in North Korea during the 1970s and 80s, before escaping via Vienna to the US in 1986 and finally heading back to Korea in 1999. Her prolific director husband, Shin Sang-ok, was eventually abducted along with her after having established Korea’s largest studio, Shin Films.

Alongside Choi Eun-hee we will also be screening the International premiere of My Daughter Rescued From The Swamp from Lee Mi-rye, the first commercially successful female director in Korea. Her film ranked fifth most popular in 1986, its year of release. The film particularly connected with younger audiences, with main actress Kim Jin-ahgiving an extraordinary performance as rebellious teenager Yuri.

Park Nam-ok was the first female director in Korea with her feature The Widow from 1955. This achievement is even more impressive when we consider it was made during a time when filming location Seoul was in ruins from the war. There is a much reproduced photo of her taken during the shoot, looking care-worn, her baby girl on her back. Park created a pioneering fim which follows war-widow Shinja (Lee Min-ja) as she resists societal expectations when she meets a young man she wants.

Lee Seo-gun’s Rub Love is similarly groundbreaking, a sometimes surreal journey through the imagined world of 2028 following Jo-han (Ahn Jae-wook) as he falls for his assassin neighbour Nana (Lee Ji-eun). Seo-gun’s humour, narrative playfulness and visual experimentation mark her as a significant and bold directorial voice.

Films in the season:

PARK Nam-ok, 1923~2017 
The Widow (미망인, 1955) Available throughout the season

The Widow

Shinja is just one of many thousands of Korean War widows. She is luckier than most: an old friend of her husband helps her set up as a seamstress, one kind male neighbour watches out for her little girl, and one feisty young neighbour just generally sticks up for her. When she meets a young man she wants, Shinja has no time for a Confucian tradition that would have her remain ever loyal to her husband’s memory nor does she immolate her desires in the role of mother. The kid gets parked with the neighbour. The film remains incomplete, despite the best efforts of restoration experts at the Korean Film Archive, and the final reel has lost its soundtrack. Shot on 16mm, the ‘studio’ some wooden shacks built on a vacant lot, The Widow is also a window on life in Seoul one summer almost 70 years ago.

CHOI Eun-hee, 1926-2018
Daughter-In-Law (1965) 14th May

Daughter-in-law

Choi Eun-hee was already one of the biggest stars of the fifties and sixties before she made the first of her three films, Daughter-In-Law, in 1965. Her husband, Shin Sang-ok, already a major film director and producer, was just about to establish Korea’s largest studio, Shin Films. It may be hard to judge what degree of creativity Choi herself brought to the rather conventional and melodramatic story; the script was based on a popular radio series. While even her acting skills may not persuade us that Jeomsun really is a twenty-something, the relationship which develops between Choi/Jeomsun and the little master conveys a real sense of warmth and affection. The film was a success.

Jeomsun’s widowed mother has reluctantly sent her precious daughter off to serve as nanny/big sister to the young scion of a wealthy yangban (ruling class) family. Jeomsun will eventually become the brat’s wife and, it is hoped, produce male heirs for an otherwise childless household. The mother-in-law is a classic: bossy, often cruel. Yet a bond of real affection develops between the boy and young woman. It will be put to the test when Jeomsun is about to be driven out of her adopted home. Already a much-loved diva, Choi seems to have taken some persuading to step behind the camera for this melodrama lightened with humour, the first of three films she would direct. She could draw upon resources other women directors might only dream of: a whole film studio and its troupe of established character actors. Almost forty, she carried off the role of ingenue Jeomsun with style, winning a major award for best actress.

A Princess’ One Sided Love (공주님의 짝사랑 1967) 27th May

A Princess’ One-Sided Love

A Princess’ One-Sided Love is a lively costume drama set in the middle of the Joseon era. It is refreshingly free of sentimentality and high-seriousness. Shin Films had the resources to produce a number of sagŭk historical dramas, but few achieve the humour of Choi’s. If only it had been shot in colour! Audiences nowadays can still appreciate how comically outrageous princess Suk-gyeong’s behaviour is: chasing a man– lower-status at that, defying her mother, insulting her grandfather, prowling the capital dressed as a man. As part of the film’s promotion, a special pre-release screening was held for a women-only audience. Maybe just a gimmick, but it would be nice to know what the reaction had been.

Suk-gyeong is the vivacious sixth and youngest daughter of late king Hyojong (d. 1659). Her brother is now King Hyeonjong, while her five sisters have been married off to important but fairly dull court nobles, a fate she is determined to avoid. After she spots a handsome young scholar of the Confucian Academy, Suk-gyeong sallies forth into the capital to track him down, with the connivance of some family members and to the fury of others. Outside the protective cocoon of the palace, she experiences the life of those less fortunate – but that doesn’t dim her refreshingly reckless nature.

Suk-gyeong seems a polar opposite to the long-suffering Jum-soon of Choi’s first film. She is played by Nam Jeong-im, one of the wildly popular young stars displacing Choi and her generation at the box offices by the late-1960s. How popular? This is only one of some 53 films Nam appeared in that year.

LEE Mi-rye, 1957~
My Daughter Rescued From The Swamp (1984) 10th June

LEE Seo-gun, 1975~
Rub Love (1998) 10th June

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