Docile Pretty Things

Korean cinema has prospered in recent years. However, portrayals of women on screen remain shallow and chauvinist, according to one local critic.

Indisputably, the Korean film industry is flourishing.Investment and box office returns are both heading up, and the sheer number of productions is rising–spawning hits and, of course, misses.

This year, the local press is abuzz about two homegrown works, “In Another Country,” by Hong Sang-soo and, “The Taste of Money,” by Im Sang-soo,both of which are vying for awards at the world’s most prestigious cinema showcase, the Cannes Film Festival.

But don’t bet on either of these films garnering the Prix d’interpretation feminine, the best actress award, unless the jury bases its decision on appearances alone.

The women in these works are of decorative value; they may have onscreen presence and beauty, but strikingly little depth of character. Their lines are cringe-worthy (conveniently lost on most Cannes audience and jury members who will watch with subtitles). Most of all, they are weak, accessories to their male co-stars.

In Korea’s motion picture hub, Chungmuro, one of the oldest cliches- beaten to death, really -is the supposed lack of leading ladies who are both bankable stars and gifted thespians.

The apparent phenomenon has maintained itself for so long that film audiences have come to reduce their expectations to an astoundingly low level. At promotional events, a good performance by an actress is pushed as a gigantic news item, a delightful exception to the norm. But the blame rests with the screenwriters and directors-often the same person-who are largely unable to depict a real female character and her infinitely complex interior.

At the respective national premieres of the Cannes entries, both Hong and Im, who cannot be more dissimilar in mise-en-scene, shared one common phrase; that they were both happy about how “nice” or “pretty” the actors, male and female, looked on the silver screen.

That is all they could muster to say about the artists – who probably worked with a barebones script in their hands.

The promotion for Im’s film, “The Taste of Money,” revolves around the abundance of female nudity and sex in it. His extremely unrealistic portrayal of high-class society makes the 60-year-old control freak matriarch, Geum-ok (YounYuh-jung), and her “jobless and fabulous” daughter, Na-mi (Kim Hyo-jin), look completely unbelievable. With only a flimsy grip on power, they must depend on their respective fathers, and more so the ubiquitous hero-assistant, Young-jak (Kim Gang-woo), for dirty corporate affairs and lady business.

Meanwhile, men in the film hire prostitutes or masseuses on a whim. Even Geum-ok’s unhappy husband (Baek Yun-shick), who married her for money and now wants to start anew with the Filipina maid Eva (Maui Taylor), treats his supposed lover like a sex doll and shows no psychological connection to her on screen.

Do women yield so much to men in real life? The audience must decide.

From Cannes regular Hong comes the even more troubling film, “In Another Country,” with its unrealistically subservient female characters. It is unsettling to witness the director’s disemboweling of Isabelle Huppert, the symbol of strong-voiced French women. He leaves only a sweet, delicate shell of a woman who awaits her tardy lover, watching the sea and exclaiming robotically over and over, “Oh, it’s beautiful!”After her husband’s infidelities, Anne (Huppert) appears both emotionally and physically brittle. Like a docile kitten, she clings to the strapping young men who come her way in this provincial seaside town.

Other women are just as hollow but decidedly more simple. Geum-hee (Moon So-ri) is a knocked up girl married to a film director (GwonHae-hyo) with a knack for adultery (he inevitably seduces Anne, who falls right into the trap). After his wife catches them in the act, she throws one of the mildest tantrums ever seen on a movie screen. Is this an ode to Anne Sinclair, the wife of fallen political figure Dominique Strauss-Kahn?

Meanwhile, Won-ju (Jeong Yu-mi), the innkeeper at Anne’s lodging, prances around in colorful dresses, religiously records her guests’ trysts and provides them various household items and food. Do any of these people have lives?

These two films are signs of the gloomy state of the movie industry in Korea, as uninteresting female characters continue to bedevil audiences.

Park Si-yeon recently scored a hit by baring one of her breasts in “The Scent.” Jo Yeo-jung is creating hoopla with her exposed thin elbows on the poster for “King’s Concubine,” slated for summer release. Gong Hyo-jin, known for candor on set and in public, openly admits that she had problems with her character in “Love Fiction” and took her complaints to its director Jeon Kye-soo. Recent box office hits like “As One,” “Eungyo,” “Architecture 101,” and even “Helpless,” which was directed by a woman (Byun Young-joo) somehow all conform to this unfortunate trend. Perhaps Korea should call Spanish director and female-role maven Pedro Almodovar to the rescue.

Kwaak Je-yup