Light and shade - Issue 171 - Magazine | Monocle
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It took South Korean director Kim Bora years to muster the courage to call herself a filmmaker. “I was always a bit embarrassed about loving films so much,” she says from her living room in Seoul. “In a [conservative] society like this, you’re always thinking about how things might not work out.”

Kim, one of the most acclaimed young directors from South Korea, is best known for her 2018 feature debut, House of Hummingbird, which won 59 prizes around the world, including at Tribeca and the Berlin International Film Festival. But success, she says, didn’t come easy. “I’m not this genius who is super certain of her opinions,” says 42-year-old Kim. “I just work really hard. Throughout my twenties I doubted whether film was the right path for me. Even in my thirties, when I finished House of Hummingbird, I thought, ‘This is too hard. I’ll quit after this one.’” What she didn’t know at the time was that the film would introduce her work to global audiences, who were already familiar with the oeuvre of male South Korean directors such as Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook.

House of Hummingbird follows Eunhee, a 14-year-old girl, as she confronts complex questions about her identity, love, sexuality, social repression and more. This all takes place in the newly democratised South Korea of 1994 – the same year a major bridge in Seoul collapsed due to faulty construction. The tragedy is still seen as a symbol of rushed modernity.

Kim was a similar age to the protagonist when the Seongsu bridge fell. Her school years were not particularly happy ones. Kim, who sees herself as a feminist, recalls frequently feeling oppressed in the cookie-cutter South Korean education system. At the Kaywon High School of Arts, where she first studied film, she once had to watch a female student, who was elected as class president, be pressured by her teacher to give up her position to a male pupil – unfortunately not an uncommon tale in South Korea at the time.

The CV

2005: Graduates from Dongguk University with a degree in film. 

2007: Leaves for New York and receives a master’s in film directing from Columbia University.

2011: Wins best student filmmaker for the east region from the Directors Guild of America for film The Recorder Exam

2018: ReleasesHouse of Hummingbird to great acclaim at Tribeca, the BFI and the Berlin International Film Festival, among others.

2021: Begins work on Spectrum, a big-budget sci-fi film based on Kim Cho-yeop’s short story.

“I was livid,” she says. “When I entered my twenties, I began to sublimate this rage into film.” At Dongguk University, she connected with feminist communities and tried to defy widespread prejudice against female directors. But it was during her master’s programme at Columbia University in New York that Kim began to feel nurtured as a filmmaker. “I sometimes wonder whether I’d have realised that it is possible for a woman to make films had I not gone to that school,” she says. “In South Korea, when I wrote a script with a lesbian character, I was questioned why. At Columbia, I was asked about character development, the narrative arc.”

Today, South Korea is a dynamic battleground for feminist movements. But hurdles still remain, including in the country’s film industry, where female directors only contributed to 11.5 per cent of theatrical releases from 2009 to 2018. Even so, Kim is undeterred. She is working on Spectrum, a big budget, sci-fi film based on Kim Cho-yeop’s short story. She is determined to bring gender sensitivity to the film and has faith in her voice. “In my twenties, I approached filmmaking a bit like a child, wanting to express and prove myself,” she says. “Now I want to be a master.” –– L

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