A Discussion of Three Pre-1970 South Korean Female Directors: Park Nam-ok, Hong Eun-won, and Choi Eun-hee
As part of their celebration of the release of their DVD Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology on May 9, 2017, Flicker Alley, a company founded in 2002 to create and distribute “new digital editions of cinema classics and rare work in partnerships with archives, broadcast networks and talented creatives”, is sponsoring an Early Women Filmmakers blogathon. “Early” is defined as pre-1970. This contribution discusses three pre-1970 South Korean women directors – Park Nam-ok, Hong Eun-won, and Choi Eun-hee.
Park Nam-ok is credited as the first woman to direct a South Korean film, The Widow (1955). And you’re in luck, this one is available on YouTube where you can watch it guilt-free because the Korean Film Archives has included it in their YouTube channel. As a result of the Korean War, many women were widowed. As a result of cultural restrictions of the time, it was frowned upon for widows to re-marry. This war torn reality mixed with the cultural norms allows for melodramatic tension when our film’s widow is pursued by a younger man who is also the paramour of a married woman. When the younger man commits to the widow, the widow’s daughter is not happy with the marriage. Significant footage of the film is lost so I can’t tell you how things pan out, but the film remains a valuable document on the first effort by a South Korean woman to direct her own film. Before directing, Park was an editor. Her husband Lee Bo-ra, who was a screenwriter, wrote the screenplay for The Widow. Park didn’t make another film after this one, but there is a brief documentary on Park called “The Dream” that Kim Jae-eui filmed in 2001. That documentary is part of the DVD of The Widow where Park talks of her life and her pioneering work.
The second South Korean woman to direct a film was Hong Eun-won. Starting out as a screenwriter, she was an assistant director on 11 films, beginning with An Innocent Criminal (1948), the head director of which was the godfather of South Korean cinema, Choi In-gyu. Hong would go on to direct three films herself, A Woman Judge (1962), A Single Mom (1964), What Misunderstanding Left Behind (1966). South Korean film scholars yelped a cry of geeky delight when a surviving print of A Woman Judge was found a few years ago. (We still have no prints of her other two films.) Since finding a copy, A Woman Judge hasn’t screened much publicly. Hopefully a DVD will be made at some point, (Can you hear my plea blogathon sponsors Flicker Alley?!), or at least one day the Korean Film Archives will add it to their official YouTube channel.
I am not sure if Choi Eun-hee is the third South Korean woman director. (By the third, perhaps we can stop ordinally counting.) Choi Eun-hee is mostly known for being South Korea’s preeminent actress from the “Golden Age”, having provided a mesmerizing range of performances in classics such as A Flower in Hell (1958) and Mother and a Guest (1961). Both these films were directed by her husband, Shin Sang-ok. From the late 50s through the 60s, they were the South Korean film power couple. Those not as well versed in South Korean cinema may be familiar with them thanks to Paul Fischer’s wonderful recent book A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power (Flatiron Books, 2015) or Ross Adam and Robert Cannan’s even more recent documentary The Lovers and the Despot (2016). Each details the ‘kidnapping’ (some scholars question if Shin was indeed kidnapped) of the couple by Kim Jong-il in the 70’s. Like Hong, Choi directed three films, The Girl Raised as a Future Daughter-In-Law (1965), One-Sided Love of Passion (1967), and An Unmarried Teacher (1972). According to the Korean Movie Database, prints exist for the first two. Regardless of the quality, I would love to see them, because it adds another layer to one of the most fascinating figures in South Korean cinema.
In closing, let me use this opportunity to make a shout out to one of my favorite film festivals, the Seoul International Women’s Film Festival that I recommend putting on your film festival bucket list if you haven’t attended already. The opening film of the inaugural festival in 1997 was Park’s The Widow. One of the few screenings of A Woman Judge were at SIWFF in 2016. And along with current films directed by women, SIWFF has regular wonderful retrospectives of women filmmakers from around the world.
 Mother and a Guest is often referenced by another name, The Houseguest and My Mother. Recently David Ehrlich of IndieWire referenced it as My Mother and The Roomer, so it’s gotten even more complicated. Similarly, other titles mentioned here may be found by searching variants of the titles provided.