There is an alarming problem with Korean films today that not enough people seem to be paying attention to—women are missing from the picture. The phrase “famine of actresses in their 20s” was created to describe the lack of actresses in their 20s that stood out. Though some speculate that this is due to a lack of talent where actresses in their 20s couldn’t get good roles, the real problem remains that films simply do not offer exciting parts to women (of all ages).
The problem of male domination on the big screen isn’t limited to Korean cinema, of course. Hollywood has long struggled with a deficiency of roles for female actresses and fortunately, there are efforts being made to change this. Reese Witherspoon, who has often starred in roles with strong women, recently started her own production company Pacific Standard, which has vowed to support female voices in film. Furthermore, those fighting for equal pay for equal work are growing louder. Hollywood is slowly writing a new interesting chapter worth paying attention to.
As such, we must ask if Korean cinema is making the same sort of progress. A look back into the history of Korean cinema will show a decline in strong female leads. The ‘60s and ‘70s were full of movies starring talented actresses, such as Choi Eun-hee and Kim Ji-mee, who produced as well. Roles for women have never been as rare as they are today.
Think about a recent Korean film you watched and chances are it’s male-dominated. While the women in Dong Ju were dignified, their roles were certainly not as interesting as their male counterparts. In A Violent Prosecutor, the majority of women are just sitting ducks waiting to fall victim to Kang Dong-won’s trickery. The PR for Likes for Likes, boasted of featuring proportionate screen time for both sexes and it made me wonder—when did a gender-balanced film become something that had to be boasted about?
Many theories, other than the one complaining about a lack of talent, have been introduced to try to explain the lack of female roles in Korean cinema. One theory is that more women in the audience have led to increased roles for actors of the opposite sex. However, using Hollywood as a reference, this doesn’t add up. During ‘40s cinema, greats such as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford acted in melodramatic films targeted at female audiences and their fan base was largely female. Another theory is that the number of genre-focused films (i.e., films such as action or horror that don’t normally star women) is growing, but there is little evidence to support this assertion. The fact is, Korean films are made by old men for old men and they have forgotten how to do it any other way. And instead of changing the system, female actresses are blamed for the problem.
The root of this issue lies in the misconception that women can’t lead and, perhaps, that these type of films don’t sell. Despite the success of Assassination last year when Jun Ji-hyun showed herself to be a force on camera, investors still stray from creating strong female characters because of their own fears and stereotypes. Even Jeon Do-yeon, who won the Best Actress Award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, has a hard time landing a good role in a movie.
How can we prevent the further exacerbation of this issue? We must first recognize that it is a problem and raise awareness about the unnatural gender imbalance occurring on screen. The stories of many great women are waiting to be written and great women are ready to act in these roles.
By Djuna (Film columnist)