It’s the final month of the KCCUK‘s Year of 12 Directors (and, yes, it’s already more than half-gone-by). I don’t really want to believe it either, for one because it means 2012 is nearly over but also because what in the world will we be doing on Thursday evenings starting from January on? I’m hoping the KCCUK will still organise some film screenings, but I’m guessing it won’t be quite as many as this year.
As for December: It’s Lim Soon-rye (임순례, sometimes also romanised as Yim or even Im Soon-rye) who is the final director of the year, and she’s also the only woman in the line-up – a reflection of that female directors in South Korea are still rather limited in number.*
About the Director
When Lim Soon-rye (b. 1960 – some websites also give 1961 as her year of birth) finished high school and had to decide what to do next, she first enrolled in an English literature degree at Hanyang University. Not only was Film Studies still emerging as a field of study and Korean cinema – apart from Im Kwon-taek and a handful of others – still fledgling, but filmmaking was not a common career path for women at the time. Lim however could not permanently be dissuaded from her calling and later completed a Masters in Film Studies at the University Paris 8 in France. Initial experiences in filmmaking came through assisting Yeo Kyun-dong on 세상밖으로 (Sesangbakk-eulo/Out to the World, 1994), with her first film – a short – being made in the same year: 우중산책 (Ujungsanchak/Promenade in the Rain). Ujungsanchak proved an excellent start to the now nearly two decades of Lim’s filmmaking, earning the director immediate recognition through the Press Award and Grand Prize at the 1st Seoul International Short Film Festival in South Korea, plus a number of other prizes at festivals abroad. Since then Lim Soon-rye has gone on to direct, write as well as produce films, Lee Kwang-Kuk’s utterly delightful 로맨스 조 (Romaenseu Jo/Romance Joe, 2011) being a recent project in whose production Lim was involved.
From the beginning, Lim Soon-rye’s films revealed an interest in stories of people on the margin. They were character studies of sorts, focusing often on men, such as in 세친구 (Sechinku/Three Friends, 1996) and 와이키키 브라더스 (Waikiki Beuradeoseu/Waikiki Brothers, 2001) – something that seemingly went against the expectations for a female filmmaker. While I would argue that such expectations were flawed to begin with (Why would a female director only tell stories about women?), critics were soon convinced by Lim Soon-rye’s work, realising that she had a unique talent to bring universal human experiences on the screen, providing sensitive and insightful narratives regardless of whom – male or female – the story was about.
Lim’s next two works, a documentary entitled 아름다운 생존: 여성 영화인이 말하는 영화 (Aleumdaun Saengjon: Yeoseong yeonghwaini malhaneun yeonghwa/Keeping the Vision Alive – Women in Korean Filmmaking, 2001) and a short (그녀의 무게 (Geunyeoui Muge/The ‘Weight’ of Her) that was part of the Human Rights Commission of Korea-funded feature 여섯개의 시선 (Yeoseot gae ui siseon/If You Were Me, 2003) did however tackle topics related to women, the former looking into the history of female Korean filmmakers, presenting, for example, the story of Park Nam-ok, whose 미망인 (Mimangin/Widow, 1955) was the first Korean film directed by a woman. Geunyeoui Muge, meanwhile, is a critical-satirical take on female beauty and body image – a huge issue in the Korean entertainment industry and beyond – with Lim Soon-rye herself appearing and being called ‘fat lady’ director in a scene.
Favourably received by critics, none of Lim’s early works were commercial success stories: they were finely crafted arthouse movies primarily destined for the film festival circuit and appreciated by cinephiles who relished more slowly-paced, subtly reflective tales. This however changed with 우리 생애 최고의 순간 (Uri saengae choegoui sungan/Forever the Moment, 2008), a film that was based on the true story of the Korean women’s national handball team and its efforts to make it to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens – efforts that were eventually rewarded with a silver medal. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was a story that resonated with Korean viewers, the film selling four million tickets at the national box office. Since Uri saengae choegoui sungan several more projects have followed: an omnibus movie entitled 날아라 펭귄 (Nalara Penggwyn/Fly Penguin, 2009), a feature-length film, 소와 함께 여행하는 법 (Sowa Hamgge Yeonghaenghaneun Beom/Rolling Home with a Bull, 2010) with Buddhist overtones, and 고양이 키스 (Goyangi Kiseu/Cat Kiss), a short. Her most recent work is 남쪽으로 튀어 (Namjjeukeuro Twieo/South Bound, 2012) and is due to be released in South Korea in January 2013. Based on a novel by the Japanese writer Okuda Hideo – previously adapted for film by Morita Yoshimitsu in the 2007「サウスバウンド」(Sausubaundo/Southbound) – the film stars Kim Yun-seok (도둑들/Dodookdeul/The Thieves, 2012) as an anarchist father that forbids his young son to consume soft drinks and canned coffee in a rebellion against foreign corporations. When the two travel south, the son slowly begins to understand the reasons behind his father’s beliefs.
Whether Namjjeukeuro Twieo will attract the same kind of audience numbers as Uri saengae choegoui sungan did isn’t certain – although having a star like Kim Yun-seok on board can only help. The plotline, however, unquestionably fits into Lim Soon-rye’s filmography: it is not a flashy story that is told here (though the film poster looks like good fun), but one that hints at an exploration of a father-son relationship with a dash of social commentary. Given Lim’s sensitive and skilled directing, it is, at least in my book, another film to look forward to.
- 우중산책 (Ujungsanchak/Promenade in the Rain, 1994) – short
- 세친구 (Sechinku/Three Friends, 1996)
- 와이키키 브라더스 (Waikiki Beuradeoseu/Waikiki Brothers, 2001)
- 아름다운 생존: 여성 영화인이 말하는 영화 (Aleumdaun Saengjon: Yeoseong yeonghwaini malhaneun yeonghwa/Keeping the Vision Alive – Women in Korean Filmmaking, 2001) – documentary
- 여섯개의 시선 (Yeoseot gae ui siseon/If You Were Me, 2003) – segment 그녀의 무게 (Geunyeoui Muge/The ‘Weight’ of Her)
- 우리 생애 최고의 순간 (Uri saengae choegoui sungan/Forever the Moment, 2008)
- 날아라 펭귄 (Nalara Penggwyn/Fly Penguin, 2009) – omnibus, consisting of four segments (all by Lim Soon-rye)
- 소와 함께 여행하는 법 (Sowa Hamgge Yeonghaenghaneun Beom/Rolling Home with a Bull, 2010)
- 미안해, 고마워 (Miahnhae, Gomawo/Sorry and Thank You, 2011) – segment 고양이 키스 (Goyangi Kiseu/Cat Kiss)
- 남쪽으로 튀어 (Namjjeukeuro Twieo/South Bound, 2012)
Awards and Nominations
Most of Lim Soon-rye have played at a wide range of film festivals around the world and were well received, winning numerous awards, including:
- The Press Award and Grand Prize at the 1st Seoul International Short Film Festival for 우중산책 (Ujungsanchak/Promenade in the Rain, 1994), as well as awards at the Clemont Ferrand and the Fribourg Film Festival.
- Best Asian Film Award at the Pusan Film Festival, Award of the Pestalozzi Children’s Village Foundation at the Fribourg International Film Festival for 세친구 (Sechinku/Three Friends, 1996)
- Best Film of the Year Award at the Blue Dragon Film Awards for 우리 생애 최고의 순간 (Uri saengae choegoui sungan/Forever the Moment, 2008)
- Netpac Award – Special Mention at the Pusan Film Festival for 와이키키 브라더스 (Waikiki Beuradeoseu/Waikiki Brothers, 2001)
Film screening dates, trailers and short synopses
*For trailers click on the original film titles*
December 6, 2012: 와이키키 브라더스 (Waikiki Beuradeoseu/Waikiki Brothers, 2001)
Having been together since high school, the members of the Waikiki Brothers band has now reached middle age – but they are still going nowhere. They play music they don’t enjoy to unenthusiastic audiences in third-rate clubs, barely scraping by. The saxophonist quits (as others have before), but the remaining band members keep playing on and struggling through life. Jung-suk and Kang-soo fight over women and bemoan there miserable fates, while Sung-woo, the band’s leader, looks on quietly and plays his guitar. Told with recurring flashbacks to band members’ school days, Waikiki Brothers is a gentle story about how we grow older and discover that our youthful dreams never came true – and as discouraging as that may sound, it’s a film that still reminds us that despite it all life will go on, somehow, even if not quite the way we imagined it.
Review quotes (my own review to follow sometime!):
- “[L]argely ignored in its initial release, but has since developed a very loyal fan base, mostly out of strong word of mouth” and “a tough, restrained but ultimately compassionate film that you may wish to revisit many times, to relish its flavor that, like good wine, gets better with repeated viewings” (from Koreanfilm.org)
- “[I]t’s also a movie about hope, about holding on to the things that matter” (from Thundie’s Prattle)
December 13, 2012: 우리 생애 최고의 순간 (Uri saengae choegoui sungan/Forever the Moment, 2008)
Uri saengae choegoui sungan (literally “The best moment of our lives”) is a film from 2008 that relives, in fictionalised form, the story of the South Korean women’s national handball team in preparation for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. It’s a team that has all but fallen apart and is reunited by a new coach, who has high hopes for the team. However, the road ahead is challenging and even qualifying for the Olympics is not certain: previous team members are discouraged and younger, new ones resist the hard training methods.
Curious fact: Apparently Uri saengae choegoui sungan is the first sports film to focus on handball.
- “In general, [Lim Soon-rye’s] work displays a strong interest in everyday frustrations and injustices, and a clear-eyed vision that never romanticizes her subjects — though as viewers we share in the compassion she feels. She’s not blockbuster material, in other words. Which is why it’s such a surprise that she made a low-budget sports film that expresses so much of her personal style, and that it became a blockbuster.” (from Koreanfilm.org)
- “Wonderful humor and fantastic actresses as well as the routinely skilled directing by Lim Soon-Rye” but also “a few flat side characters” (from Asian Movie Web)
- “Korean audiences will undoubtedly get more out of Forever the Moment than the rest of the globe, and the film’s blockbuster status confirms its local appeal. However, the message here is universal, and well-earned.” (from lovehkfilm.com)
December 20, 2012: 소와 함께 여행하는 법 (Sowa Hamgge Yeonghaenghaneun Beom/Rolling Home with a Bull, 2010) + Q&A
A man – a bachelor and a poet – lives in the remote countryside with his parents. Against the wishes of his father he decides to sell the family’s bull and takes the animal to a cattle market in a town quite some distance away. On the road he encounters someone he used to know: his former lover that married his friend. It’s an unexpected encounter, but more shocking news follow as he learns that the friend has recently died. Together with the bull, the man accompanies the woman to the funeral, embarking on a road journey of Buddhist dimensions: the cow symbolising the search for truth in life within Buddhism. The film is based on a 2007 novel of the same title by Kim Do-yeon.
- “The film is more than just perfectly delicate moments of pain and loneliness woven together to paint the hardships of the human condition. It is the ideal combination of talent in acting and filmmaking.” (from Twitchfilm.com)
- “[G]uided by the unerringly masterful hand of Yim Soon-rye, aided by Park Kyoung-hee’s beautifully written screenplay” and “Park Yeong-jun’s richly textured cinematography”. Plus “the titular bull is a compelling, sympathetic character in its own right; while not achieving the sublime depths of Bresson’s Balthazar, it’s at least in the ballpark.” (from koreancinema.org)
- “A humorous, lyrical, and philosophical wonder, Yim Soon-rye’s Rolling Home with a Bull is her best film to date, a superior addition to her already impressive body of work.” (from The Bourne Cinema Conspiracy)
December 27, 2012: 날아라 펭귄 (Nalara Penggwyn/Fly Penguin, 2009)
Fly Penguin is about a varied group of people – all connected by family ties or their jobs – each facing some sort of personal struggle. There’s young schoolboy who has to attend extra classes. His mother nags him, he doesn’t quite meet her expectations. His father sympathises. A man with dietary restrictions can’t partake in social events at his new place of employment. Another one is faced with divorce. It’s a quiet character study constructed of small stories (spread over four segments), of people who are all very real.
- A film that “highlights social problems in a lightly humerous [sic], non-preachy manner” for those who “like quiet, character-driven dramas” (from Seen in Jeonju).
- Chris Bourne’s blog post on Yim Soon-rye, “Keeping the Vision Alive” — Q&A at the Korea Society, 4/22/09. Lots of interesting stuff there, including more video links.
- Q&A with Lim Soon-rye after a screening of her documentary on Korean women filmmakers “Keeping the Vision Alive”.
- 2012 Year of 12 Directors Interview – added 23/12/2012.
*Apparently female directors in South Korea outnumber those in other parts of Asia, but while this may be true, my personal impression is that while there may now be more women film directors in the country than when Lim Soon-rye started and more opportunities for them, many are little known and likely have no more than one or perhaps two films to their name. Correct me if I’m wrong – and I’ll make a note for myself to research this topic in more detail and write up a blog post on it one day.