Korean New Wave Cinema film directors include some famous names, such as Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Okja) and Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), but there is precious little of female names to be found in the ring of Korean New Wave cinematic talent – not really surprising, given how male-oriented Korean film industry is. But there is a female director who stands out from the male-dominated ranks: Yim Soon-rye.
Yim, a graduate of English Literature at Hanyang University, went on to receive a master’s degree in Film Studies at Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis, and delved into filmmaking right after her return to Korea in 1993. She first worked as an assistant director, but made her presence in the industry clear almost off the bat – in 1994, she directed her first short Promenade in the Rain, which went on to win the Grand Prize and the Press Award at the 1st Seoul International Short Film Festival. In 1996, Yim Soon-rye finally presented her directorial debut – Three Friends – a study of social pressure and Korean masculinity that won Yim the NETPAC award at the 1996 Busan International Film Festival.
Her work in the years that followed was not without struggle, but she showed that she has a talent for taking on interesting projects that were met with critical acclaim. Her 2001 feature, Waikiki Brothers, won several awards, including the Korean Oscar, the Best Film Award at the 2002 Baeksang Arts Awards. Her third feature, a female-driven sports drama Forever the Moment (2008) became a commercial hit as well as a film critic favourite, winning Best Film both at the 2008 Baeksang Arts Awards and the 2008 Blue Dragon Film Awards, earning Yim the title Woman Filmmaker of the Year.
Her most recent success was the 2014 film about the real-life events in which a whistle blower anonymously tipped off a local investigative program that an internationally renown biotech professor fabricated research in human embryonic stem cell cloning, making it one of the biggest global scientific frauds in the past decades. Whistle Blower was heavily nominated, but did not win a lot of awards, and Yim patiently waited for the next project that would capture her interest and show promise. The project turned out to be a manga adaptation remake, a simple and poignant story with strong female energy, which speaks out especially to the current youth of Korea, undergoing massive pressure that is brought on by the competitive Korean society.
Little Forest was screened in Udine during the 2018 Far East Film Festival, and we caught up with Yim Soon-rye the day after it was screened – and wholeheartedly welcomed by the Italian (and international) audience.
Your film, Little Forest, is based on a manga – what made you want to adapt this particular story?
Even though it’s based on a manga, there is a Japanese version of the film, a two-part live action adaptation, that was made before. Actually, the producer of the Korean version, who is in his mid-forties, watched the Japanese film when it was released in Korea. And he got besotted by it, and offered this project to me. The reason why I accepted was because nowadays, most of mainstream Korean cinema is very violent and big-budgeted. I wanted to make a small film, a film which can heal and soothe the young generation of Korea, who is currently going through hard times.
It is said that you are a nature lover. Have you ever lived a similar lifestyle as Hae-won does in the film – have you ever left the city for the countryside?
Even though I work in Seoul, I live in a small town called Yangpyoung, which is a one-hour drive away from central Seoul. I have a dog, so I wanted to give the dog a bigger space to run around and… It’s been already 13 years since I moved there, and I also grow little things in my small field, and I am a nature lover; I am very used to and acquainted to this kind of environment. While making Little Forest, I found that I was more familiar with the nature than some other directors might be.
If we take a look at the casting: Kim Tae-ri, Moon So-ri and Ryu Jun-yeol are all very high-profile; what was the casting process like?
Kim Tae-ri must have received lots of offers after The Handmaiden, which was a huge success. Since this story is very calm, and the lead actress has to be in every scene of the film, I thought that the leading actress of Little Forest should be really attractive because she is the one who leads the story; but not one with artificial beauty, I wanted someone who possesses a very natural attraction. So I offered the role to Kim Tae-ri and maybe the reason why she accepted was because she was looking for a new image, or an opposite image after her role in The Handmaiden. She might also have been very attracted by the fact that she would lead the whole story, which is very challenging, but it’s a very attractive thing for an actress.
For Ryu Jun-yeol, he starred in one of the films I produced, called Glory Day. We knew each other, and I didn’t ask him why, but maybe he was attracted to his role also so that he could support the actress Kim Tae-ri who is very talented – that might be the reason why he joined the project.
I knew Moon So-ri from before, and she is also best friends with the producer, so the producer kind of charmed her into taking the role, saying that she will come to the set anyway to visit, so it might be better to just take the role and come as a cast member for sure.
We see a lot of unique Korean dishes presented in the film – you made us all very hungry! (Laughter) How did you select the Korean dishes you wanted to feature in the film, and do you also make the same dishes at home?
The film features 16 dishes, which amounts to 3 or 4 dishes per season of the year. The dishes presented are mostly Korean, but there are also some dishes like pasta or crème brûlée. Those dishes were used because the target audience were young females, so we felt they would find such dishes attractive. I also wanted to show that Korean drinks like makgeolli, or dishes like rice cake can be cooked and made at home, so I chose them for the film. Also, some dishes are related to my own memories of my mother – like tteokbokki that the character of Eun-sook wanted to eat in the film. Kim Tae-ri’s character Hye-won used the materials from near her house, from her field, so the dishes were selected on that basis. As for the acacia flower fritters, I actually made those before, and some dishes I actually learned to make through the course of making this film. For example, I learned how to make makgeolli; I tried 3 times before, but I failed every time. With makgeolli, timing is very important, but I was always a little too late, so it got fermented already – not all of these dishes are easy to make.
Being one of the few outstanding Korean female auteurs – what are the main challenges you faced, and do you feel that the tide now, with the new wave of feminism, is turning for the better?
I think that the biggest challenge for the female filmmakers in Korea is the distribution system, run by big investors and multiplex systems. They prefer big-budget blockbusters, while female filmmakers usually are better with personal stories and different narratives and structures. That is why female filmmakers and directors are suffering. The wave of feminism might help change how the films portray male and female characters, but generally speaking, industry-wise, I don’t think that there will be a huge change happening any time soon.
We would like to thank Yim Soon-rye for taking the time to answer our questions, and the Udine Far East Film Festival team for arranging the interview.
Interviewed by Sanja Struna (View of Korean Cinema) and Paige Lim (Taipei Times)
Edited by Sanja Struna
Cover photo © Sanja Struna
Udine FEFF photo © courtesy of the Festival
Little Forest photos © Watermelon Pictures