How Yim Soon-Rye Became A Leader Of Korean New Wave: 52 Weeks Of Directors

by Lauren C. Byrd


While not a common name in Hollywood, Yim Soon-rye (or Soon-rye Yim) is a director from Incheon, South Korea. She is one of the few female filmmakers to be considered part of the Korean New Wave Cinema, along with directors like Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer) and Park Chan-wook (Oldboy).

The Korean New Wave is made up of a generation of Korean directors who came of age as the newly democratic South Korea started to bloom culturally and artistically. Yim studied English Literature at Hanyang University, earning her B.A. in 1985 and went on to earn a master’s degree in Film Studies from Paris 8 University.

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In 1993, she returned to Korea and worked as an assistant director on Yeo Kyun-dong’s film, Out to the World. A year later, she directed her first short film, Promenade in the Rain and three years later, made her first feature, Three Friends, which explored Korean masculinity and marginalization through the lives of three young men who have difficulty fitting in and adjusting to Korea’s social system.

Her work on a documentary, Keeping the Vision Alive, focused on women in Korea’s film world. Yim says it was partly an homage to peers such as Park Nam-ok and Hwang Hye-mi and partly to recognize contemporary directors like Byun Young-joo and Sang Hee-sun. Yim let the women discuss their experiences and struggles to survive in the male-dominated, conservative, and often sexist Korean film industry.

Yim told Twitch Film last year about how she was able to gain a foothold in the Korean film industry. “Ten years before I made my debut, there was quite a gap in the number of female directors. In the past, if you wanted to become a director, you had to go to a prominent director and start as a production assistant and go up the latter for 10 or 20 years, uncertain of where you would go.”


“That film system sort of changed as I came into filmmaking, and also in the late 80s and early 90s, new producers came on board to produce new films, namely Shim Jae-myung, who is a very influential film producer today. Also, there started to be more film festivals that were screening short films: Actually, I had gotten my start because I received an award for one of my short films and that gave me a boost in my career, as well,” Yim said, referring to Promenade in the Rain.

“I would say that my start in my development as a film director came concurrently with the changes in Korean society.  And even now, the roles of women in this industry goes along with what is happening socially, because we still have a lot of equality issues, sexism – which is always prevalent in Korea – so I feel like our roles ebb and flow according to that social screen that’s going on and on. There’s still a lot to improve, but I feel that it is still incrementally improving, in a way, and because I feel like there’s a lot of good young female directors that are up-and-coming, I still feel like there’s cause to be optimistic, but it’s one step at a time.”


In 2003, Yim was one of six filmmakers who participated in an omnibus film, If You Were Me, funded by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. Her short, The Weight of Her, is a satirical take on female beauty and body image.

Perhaps her most commercially successful film, Forever the Moment, was based on a true story of the South Korean women’s national handball team that won the silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Her most recent film, Whistle Blower (2014), is also based on real life events. A biotech professor at Seoul National University, Hwang Woo-Suk, gained international recognition in 2004 when he claimed he had successfully cloned human embryonic stem cells. But after a whistleblower tipped off a local investigative program, it was revealed his research was fabricated. The story was one of the biggest scientific frauds in recent history.

Yim delves into the darkness and the clock and dagger world of both investigative journalism and biotechnology in Whistle Blower. She said her focus was the journalist (played by Park Hae-il) who battles for truth, despite political pressure and public condemnation. She cited that one of the difficulties in the film was portraying the scientist, Dr. Lee (Lee Geung-young) as multidimensional. Yim also said her style of filmmaking had to be altered to keep up with the scientific vocabulary and heavy themes of the film.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this film really deviates a lot from my style of filmmaking. If you see the editing, the speed of the editing is very fast cut. There’s a lot of movement of the camera, and even the music, it’s more like dramatic music that’s being used, different from what I usually do.

The reason I did this was because, as you can see, there’s a lot of technical terminology going on and also the subject matter is heavy, so I felt that if I was going to go for that deep, dark mood and just go with it, that would drag the film down too much. In order to counter the weight of the subject, I made the choice to make it cinematically a little lighter; so, like a lot of close-ups, the music, a lot of movement in the camera.”

When asked what aspiring female directors can do to break into the film industry, Yim’s advice can apply to either the Korean film industry or Hollywood, as she advises future directors to create their own vision. “I do feel that female directors are at a disadvantage when it comes to networking because it’s very male-dominated. The activities that are involved in networking are usually male-oriented activities, so we are at a disadvantage, but I feel that always, investors and producers are still looking for films that can have a certain type of artistic excellence to them, and not just films that are geared toward making money.


So, I feel that if you can get your hands on a screenplay that is creative and that is new and fresh, or if you are able to write a screenplay that is new and interesting, I feel like if you start from that point, you’ll have more luck in being able to create your own vision.”

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