London Korean Film Festival 2016 - Exploring Female Identity Within Masculine Spaces

This is a guest post from George Cudmore, reporting from the London Korean Film Festival.

Amidst the London Korean Film Festival’s special focus on female directors creating films for and about women, a clear line could be drawn between two titles - Take Care Of My Cat (2002) and Our Love Story (2016) - that explore, among many other critical issues, the complexity of female identity within masculine spaces.

Jeong Jae-eun’s Take Care Of My Cat examines the complexities of five women growing (and growing up) within the confines of different structures that limit and curb their potential. Set amongst the backdrop of the devastating ‘97 financial crises in Korea, Take Care Of My Cat juxtaposes the rich friendship of Hae-joo, Tae-hee, Ji-young and Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo with the poverty-stricken port town of Inches – a gritty, claustrophobic city space the girls traverse, trying to make ends meet (Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo both sell jewellery on the street) as well as enjoying themselves.

The film is rich in its depiction of each of the girl’s individual paths – Hae-joo’s struggle at progressing within a broker’s firm, Tae-hee’s exploitation by her family and a disabled male-poet she is helping, Ji-young’s poverty stricken family and dreams of being a textile artist, and the twins desperate-but-jolly attempts to sell what they can. While the situation of each character highlights the complexity of individual lives post-graduation, the film’s strength lies in its sharp representation of how each female is acutely affected by the masculine space she resides within.

Jeong Jae-eun’s shot selection opens this discourse acutely, flipping frequently from intense close-up to wide shot, offering us a parallel between the intimacy of female body/identity with its physical masculine counterpart – jobs, family, relationships and the town itself. Both Ji-young’s and Hae-joo’s career dreams are at staunch odds with the spaces they find themselves in. Hae-joo, for example, moves and works for a brokers’ firm in Seoul, a largely invisible presence within a male environment. Despite this, she excels but is later reduced by her lack of a university degree – an arguably laughable exemption considering her hard work, her adaptability and the praise she receives. The invisible structure that plagues her is not even present to condemn her – her female boss gives her the bad news, albeit, without care.

However, it’s in Jae-eun’s characterisation of Ji-young that the film fully realises this juxtaposition. Living in a rundown tin-pot looking after her grandparents, Ji-young’s dream of being a textile artist is at massive odds with her position. Not only is she confined to the tradition of providing for her family, essentially acting as a surrogate mother, she is also trapped within the city’s broken walls. Her future has been devastated by the actions of men. It’s within the rubble that the women of the town are left to dwell and rebuild – sifting through seafood, re-threading old clothes, dreaming of a better tomorrow.

It is not without a hopeful end. As Tae-hee takes what is rightfully hers and pulls both girls out of a quagmire and onto better things, it seems only through female solidarity can freedom be obtained.

Lee Hyun-ju’s Our Love Story, a wonderful LGBT film, explores how place (and indeed space) defines, and comes to subjugate, its female protagonist’s identities.

Yoon-ju, a graduate of fine art, is working on her graduation exhibition. Struck by the magnificence of Ji-soo at a junk shop, they soon embark on a passionate relationship. Much of the ensuing action takes place in Ji-soo’s flat; a safe haven for the girl’s exploration of their new-found relationship, and Yoon-ju’s flourishing sexuality. While their love is cocooned here, director Lee Hyun-ju opens up the film to other spaces; the girls wander the streets smoking and drinking (a parallel to the freedom seen in these spaces in Take Care Of My Cat) as well as eating regularly at a nearby restaurant, where they kiss, cuddle and even fumble around in the toilets. Seoul itself seems to, for the most part, embody freedom of movement and expression, of sexuality and openness.

The narrative is shattered by the temporality of circumstances. Ji-soo, struggling financially, moves to her father’s apartment, a long bus-ride out of Seoul, leaving Yoon-ju alone, and unable to bridge the gap between her past and present selves. Both physically and emotionally distant, the girls are irreconcilable – their situation exacerbated by Ji-soo’s fathers traditional outlook on relationships and Yoon-ju’s teacher’s invasive approach to her work and workspace (which doubles as her living quarters). Counter to Seoul’s fluidity, Ji-soo’s father’s hometown is shot in a static manner: the bus-stop and his flat has no in-between – we flip between the two locations, juddering along with the characters as they fail to recreate the intimacy seen in Seoul.

Sadly, subjected to the grips of their male elder’s normativity, it becomes evident their relationship can never be the same – even when they re-enter Seoul, and each other’s arms. Despite the gravity of the fall in Our Love Story and the subdued breakthrough in Take Care Of My Cat, both Jeong Jae-eun and Lee Hyun-ju showcase the complexity of women carving out identities in spaces so dominantly male – it’s difficult to not be moved and appreciative that these narratives exist.

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