Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today: Female Characters and Genre in Contemporary Korean Cinema


Editor’s Notes: The following article and review is a a part of Rowena Santos Aquino’s coverage of the Korean film series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today”. Additional entries can be found here.

Helpless (2012) and Blind (2011) are two recent very well-crafted and well-executed works in the crime thriller/mystery mode, and can be regarded as the flipside of each other. In Helpless, a woman goes missing and the pursuit of her, the how, and the why by her fiancé and his detective cousin is the narrative drive, while in Blind it is a female former cop-in-training who becomes unwittingly involved in pursuing a hit-and-run case alongside a detective from Busan. These two films present these women in practically exclusively male-populated environments, which seemingly position them as victims and nothing more. But on closer inspection, they can be read as attempts to present complex, multidimensional women who act against their acted-upon-ness to varying degrees; within the confines of a genre to be sure, but significantly one outside of the romantic comedy and in ways that neither infantilises nor demonises the character.

In this sense, these two films dialogue with another 2012 film release, Yoo Ha’s latest film Howling. Like Helpless and Blind, Howling presents a woman in an exclusively homosocial environment through a narrative involving a criminal case. The story is of a female rookie cop partnered with a seasoned male detective to pursue a case of serial killings. While the overriding plot involves a series of killings that look to be the work of an assassin dog-wolf (hence the title), among other things, arguably the film is just as much—if not more deceptively so—about the sexism that Eun-yeong, the rookie cop, experiences throughout the film from not only her partner but also the entire precinct. These three films are interesting individually and stand well on their own stylistically and narratively speaking. But through certain shared elements along gender and genre lines, collectively they present an even more interesting entry point to talk about female characters, genre cinema, and representation in contemporary Korean cinema.

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Rowena Santos Aquino

Senior Film Critic. Recently obtained my doctoral degree in Cinema and Media studies at UCLA. Linguaphile and cinephile, and therefore multingual in my cinephilia. Asian cinemas, Spanish language filmmaking, Middle Eastern cinemas, and documentary film.