Here is the transcript of my email conversation with South Korean director Shin Su-won, whose latest film, Hommage, opens today in Tokyo and throughout Japan. My article about the movie, which portrays a director, not unlike Shin herself, struggling to restore one of the first films ever made in South Korea by a woman director, appeared last week in The Japan Times. Thanks to J.D. Kim.
Hommage is based on a documentary you made. Did you have to investigate Hong Eun-won’s career, just like Ji-wan in the movie?
I first learned about director Hong Eun-won, who worked in the 1960s, when I created the MBC TV documentary Yeoja-manse (Woman with a camera) in 2011. I thought only male directors existed during that period, so I was shocked to learn about her. Moreover, why hadn’t I known about her at all? Why had she been forgotten? I tried to imbue Hommage with those emotions. Hong Eun-won had already long passed when I started shooting the documentary, so I interviewed her daughter, friends, and collaborators. I also met an elderly person who used to work in real estate around Myeongdong while doing my research. I was surprised that she remembered her well. That whole experience helped immensely in writing the script.
What parts of Ji-wan’s career and home situation were based on your own life?
Ji-wan’s and my everyday experiences are somewhat similar but vastly different in other ways. In the film, Ji-wan has directed three features but Hommage is my sixth. I specifically gave Ji-wan three films under her belt because Hong Eun-won closed out her career after creating three films. Ji-wan’s son, Boram, and husband also differ [from my family] in terms of vocations and personalities. To be honest, when I quit my job as a teacher and first started directing, there were some conflicts surrounding the responsibilities of household management and child rearing. But nowadays, unlike in the film, my family divides the chores amongst themselves when I’m filming or working overseas. Everyone has their own chores to take care of at home as well.
I included my experience of these past conflicts in the film. Most working mothers have to come home from work and look after the home and the children, effectively working full time twice over. I wanted to show their everyday plight through Ji-wan.
I was impressed by the scenes about Ji-wan’s health problems. Why did you include these scenes?
First and foremost, I wanted to portray Ji-wan’s fear of ‘fading away.’
All the people Ji-wan meets as she chases Hong Eun-won’s shadow have grown old. They are all figures who in their youth created films with a burning passion but have now faded from our memory with age and time.
As Ji-wan meets the editor who doesn’t even remember the word ‘film,’ or the elderly actor with dementia who can’t remember ever working with Hong Eun-won, she’s faced with a sense of fear that though she’s relatively young now, she’ll grow old and no longer be able to create films anymore. To highlight that fear, I made Ji-wan 49 going on 50, around the time women experience physical changes from menopause.
The second reason is to show her departure from womanhood.
The uterus is not only the source of birth but is the organ that distinguishes a woman’s biological sex. While men continue to pursue their careers after marriage, many women give up their dreams and quit their jobs after having children in order to raise them and manage the household, because they have uteruses.
The first thing Ji-wan says to her husband after her hysterectomy is “Hey, brother.” This is said as a joke, but it also contains the underlying idea, ‘I’m your equal now, like a brother.’ Essentially, it notes that she’s been freed from gender based on her societal obligations as a woman.
Many women directors now work in Korea. Something like 90 percent of the scripts for TV dramas are written by women. Have women achieved equal status with men in the film industry? What barriers for women remain?
According to a statistic from before the Covid 19 pandemic, 14 percent of all Korean films released in 2019 were directed by women. In other words, only 14 out of 100 directors were women while the other 86 were men. Of course, it’s slowly getting better. When I released my first feature, Passerby #3, in 2010 there was a meager number of women directors, but the number started rising a few years ago. It’s really good to see; though, unfortunately, there’s still a lot more prejudice toward female directors than male directors.
Traditionally, male artists earn more respect as they become older because of experience. Is it different for women?
I think it’s wonderful to continue creating films after growing old, regardless of gender. I will always respect and support the incredible male directors who have come before me and who, despite aging, continue to share their world and build their careers. However, there aren’t many elderly female directors who continue directing. I think this is due to widespread prejudice toward women, which feeds into less trust for women directors.
While I was preparing to become a director, there was something I often heard: a woman over 40 can’t direct in chungmuro, which is what the Korean film scene is often called, so I should create my first feature before I get too old. Someone even told me that I had the worst situation for my debut as a director, because I’m a woman, I’m not pretty, I’m older, and I’m married, Of course, the person who said this was on my side and worried about what I’d come up against. That’s how pervasive prejudice toward women directors was. I wouldn’t have had to hear those things if I were a man.
In the end, I had to prove that all of these comments were unfounded by creating my first feature, Passerby #3, at the age of 42. I just hope directors can be judged based on their vision, directorial insight, and experiential prowess and not on their gender.
What is the reaction in Korea to Hommage? What was the reaction at international film festivals?
A lot of people liked the fact that it was a lighter film, unlike my previous darker features, PLUTO, Madonna, Glass Garden, and Light for the Youth. Fans of my first film, Passerby #3, especially appreciated Hommage and thought of it as a sequel of sorts. The Jeonju International Film Festival screened Hommage in conjunction with Passerby #3, Hong Eun-won’s A Woman Judge and my documentary, Woman With a Camera. It was a huge honor. When Hommage was first released, the audience loved scenes of Ok-hee and Ji-wan together, historical scenes featuring Hong Eun-won, scenes portraying the editing process of putting pieces of film together, scenes of the theater with the door closed, and the shadow scenes. The generation [that grew up] after physical film in cinema was no longer the norm were fascinated by the process of restoring films. Of course, all this appreciation included admiration for Lee Jeong-eun’s acting.
As for international film festivals, the film first screened in Tokyo and traveled to Europe, New York, Australia, and the rest of Asia from March to November of last year. Someone told me the film was ‘poetic,’ while another viewer remarked that the film had a variety of layers in terms of its woman-centered storytelling and other aspects. I’ve also been told that the film deals with the themes of ‘death’ and ‘withering away,’ based on those moments such as the woman who committed suicide in the parking lot, the old actor with dementia, the woman judge’s death, and Ji-wan’s hysterectomy. More than anything, the audience was fascinated by the process depicted of restoring film and by the fact that there were women directors like Hong Eun-won in the history of Korean cinema. Internationally, the most admired scenes were the same as those admired in Korea. However, they were also intrigued by that scene where a character cracks open an egg into their coffee. Some of the women in the audience sympathized with the misogyny shown by sharing their own experiences with gender discrimination in their respective countries.
Feminism is a controversial topic in Korea, and in other countries, too. How does Hommage fit into this public conversation about feminism?
The feminism movement began to gain traction a few years ago. Since this film is a story about women filmmakers and their struggles in the past, one could say that Hommage is a feminist film. Many women came to see and appreciate the film, and I will continue to make films about women. But some viewers interpreted Hommage as not simply a feminist film, but one that revives forgotten individuals and restores memory.
I agree with these people. I hope that the actions of Ji-wan, searching for the lost film and then restoring it piece by piece with Ok-hee the editor, aren’t simply read as an homage to Hong Eun-won but as an act of recollection and restoration honoring the beautiful moments shared with people who have been forgotten by society. This film is an homage to bygone memories and times that we’ve forgotten.
We can’t see Ji-wan’s future. We don’t know if she will make another film. What about your own future as an artist?
I don’t worry too much about my own future. I’m the type of person who stays focused on the present rather than dread the future while drowning in worry. We can’t know what the future holds. We can only do our best in the present and continue on. I believe it’s the same for Ji-wan.
Making Hommage, including post-production and the theatrical release, took three years. I took too long of a break and am now working on new projects.
In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakusho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).
Hommage home page in Japanese
photos (c) 2021 June Film