Tracing Korea’s films by women from the 2010s: Snowball and #AfterMeToo

The Seoul International Women’s Film Festival is introducing to audiences at the LKFF two contemporary films by women: Director Lee Woo-jung’s Snowball and Co-directors Park Sohyun, Kangyu Garam, Soram and Lee Somyi’s #AfterMeToo. From their materials and subject matter, from the perspective of style, and also through those women who worked on their production—reflected from all angles across these two works is Korean women’s film of the 2010s.

Snowball is director Lee Woo-jung’s debut feature-length. During the first half of the 2010s, with Hanna Song (2008), Shhhhh (2009), Get Dry (2009), and See You Tomorrow (2011), amongst others, Lee arose as a star of short film, and became part of the recently-emerging unique short-film/independent-film culture and indie-film fandom headed by female audiences. Even until now, this independent film culture has been largely influenced by male directors such as Yoon Seong-ho, considered the ‘godfather’ of Korean independent film and comedy web-dramas, Kim Jong-kwan, who first triggered the fandom phenomenon surrounding short-film directors, and Bleak Night director Yoon Sung-hyun, who shaped the screening and marketing methods of independent films in Korea across the past ten years. However, the presence of women directors—including Kang Jin-a, Lee Woo-jung, Lim Oh-jeong, Kim Bora, Yu Ji-yong, Jeon Gowoon, Yoon Ga eun, Kim Hyun-jung, Kim So-hyung—and their short films has been far from insignificant.

The short films of these women directors, whose main characters were in their childhood or teens, though they didn’t possess an obvious strong feminist consciousness, dealt with the internal life and desires of their female leads, as well as their relationships with other girls. These shorts—operating somewhere between feminism, femininity and the female—foreshadowed the powerful proliferation of the feminist movement across Korean society, and sharply increased the presence of women across the cultural spectrum from 2015 onwards. Amongst these, Lee Woo-jung’s See You Tomorrow (2011) examined through a weird and frightening perspective the friendship between young girls and their brutal daily existence. The film left such a big impression on Korean independent film that it’s still talked about even now, and Lee soon became a director to watch as fans waited anxiously for her debut feature-length. Though it took around ten years for her to release Snowball, the specific culture of the language and ecosystem of teenage girls in the nineties, the cool portrayal of the punishing world that bars them from happiness, and the crises that arise from this, builds on from the world presented in See You Tomorrow, and in terms of direction shows a considerable maturity. Particularly prominent are the methods by which space and time of the past are expressed. Lee doesn’t interpose any event that would act as a clear indicator for the period, but instead inserts newsreels and home videos from the time, puts great effort into the costumes and artistic elements, and—through a different method from that of male directors’ ‘historical revisiting’ films—expresses the historical nature of time and space.

#AfterMeToo’s co-directors Park Sohyun, Kangyu Garam, Soram and Lee Somyi, and producers Park Hemi and Nam Soon-a, have also been key figures in Korean women director’s filmmaking of the past ten years. Kangyu Garam first began documentary-making with the cultural planning collective ‘Let’s Play Younghee’, whose key members are graduate students from the Ewha Women’s University department of Women’s Studies. Over the past five years, through her directorial and producing roles in films such as The Girl Princes (2011), My Father’s House (2011), Itaewon (2016), and Us, Day by Day (2019), she has emerged as the most important feminist documentary filmmaker in Korea. Park Sohyun attracted attention through her documentaries The Knitting Club (2015), and Like a Rolling Stone (2018), and is expanding the methods by which female characters are captured through the camera. Following the feminism explosion in Korean society and the Me Too movement, directors Soram and Lee Somyi directed Tong Geum: I Hate Curfews (2018) and Observational and Memory (2018) respectively, two films which showed young women directors’ sense of feminism, and the directors subsequently became the topic of conversation within the independent film world. Director Nam Soon-a, producer of #AfterMeToo, has made it compulsory for staff on her film production projects to undergo sexual harassment training, and as a female film figure that has made an important contribution to the industry, she is chairperson of The Association of Korean Independent Film and Video’s Gender Equality Committee. Nam has also directed clever spirited short drama films and documentaries, made through a feminist perspective. Producer Park Hemi is, unsurprisingly, a media activist, and during her work as an international film festival programmer, has contributed to the proliferation of feminism within the Korean independent film world.

It was these key film figures from the past ten years of the feminist documentary wave that came together to direct #AfterMeToo. The film opens with the voice of Kim Hak-sun, the first in Korea to come forward publicly and testify her experience as a sex slave of the Japanese army, showing that the spread of the ‘Me Too movement’ is not a recent phenomenon, but is connected to history. It is memorable not only how each of the feature’s short films—# MeToo stories in schoolMy Body and Heart is Now Healthy, Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Grey Sex—focus on societal declaration and whistle-blowing surrounding a different aspect of sexual violence, but how according to their subject matter, they are each referencing other documentaries.

Through Snowball and #AfterMeToo, two of the most central works within the Korean women’s independent film wave of the last ten years, let’s take the opportunity to glimpse into the subjective examination and artistic choices of contemporary feminist Korean film directors.

Hwang Miyojo