A Step Towards Artivism: How is the Korean Film Industry Changing? – April Park

April Park

Human Asia Project Intern



(Video: Marie Claire Korea, Youtube. Press CC for English.)


In commemoration of International Women’s Day, Marie Claire Korea has released its third Gender Free Campaign video on March 6, 2020. The video shows eight female actresses, delivering lines originally performed by male actors. The campaign serves to raise awareness about gender fluidity and to break gender norms that prevail in the film industry.

This campaign is an example of a change that is taking place in the South Korean – hereinafter referred to as Korean – film industry. Throughout history, Korean movies, like any other media platform, have been showcasing biased gender stereotypes and forcing male narratives under the name of ‘culture’. In this article, I plan to dive into how Korean movies have been incorporating women and sexual minorities into their productions and how this can spark the momentum to a stronger ‘artivism’ for gender equality.


Art and Activism

Before we begin this article, it is important for us to understand what the term ‘artivism’ conveys. Artivism, a portmanteau from art and activism, engages with social injustices through creativity and imagination. The term was inspired by the actions of Chicano artists in the late 1990s; however, the intertwined relationship between art and activism continued long before then. [1] With the development of technology and the expansion of artistic mediums, artivism has been prospering as a non-violent method of activism, especially among the younger population. [2] The United Nations, along with many other international organizations, recognizes the power of artivism and has been actively endorsing the method to its agenda. In 2017, the EU and the UN representatives collectively endorsed art as a significant tool to fight against human rights abuses. [3]

Currently, there are many established international human rights treaties, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that protect the rights of women and sexual minorities. Councils like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) were also created with the specific purpose to address issues women face and to brainstorm national strategies to eliminate discrimination against women. [4] The convention also specifically addresses the rights of LGBTQ+ communities in three of its general recommendations. [5] Upholding these international covenants, many UN treaty bodies, including the Human Rights Committee, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, UNHCR, and UN Women, have endorsed protecting the rights of women and LGBTQ+ communities and prohibiting any form of discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity. [6]

Art has been an essential part of activism particularly within UN Women’s continuous fight for gender empowerment. In March 2018, UN Women and Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted an event as part of their regional program, “Empowered Women, Peaceful Communities”, that incorporated comedy and pop culture as a means to transform gender social norms. [7] In 2019, UN Women hosted its first high-level event on gender diversity and non-binary identities. During this event, several artists made the panel and expressed their opinions on how art can be used as a method of activism. Katlego Kai Kolanyane-Kesupile, a multidisciplinary artist and an activist, highlighted the importance of “seeing and hearing from trans and gender-diverse people in all spaces on all issues”. Geena Rocero, the founder of Gender Proud, also stressed the importance of media representations of the most marginalized voices. [8] In 2019, the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia organized an exhibition of 25 art pieces that highlight women’s empowerment and celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. [9] As observed, artivism has been actively practiced internationally: and the Korean film industry has also started to follow the trend.


Korean Cinema

The eight actresses who took part in the campaign video unanimously talked about the new wave of transition in Korean cinema. [10] With the beginning of the South Korean #MeToo movement in 2018, efforts to raise gender equality have gained speed in the Korean film industry. In the past (and the continuing present frankly), the female roles within Korean films were limited to supporting characters to their male lead protagonists. They were often limited to play roles either as a traditional “good wife and wise mother” or a sinful seductress who is subjected to male sexual desire. [11] The female characters’ stories were omitted from the plot unless it revolved around romance with other characters on the show – needless to say, the romance was almost always heterosexual. An appearance of a character who did not conform to the binary gender system was hard to find.

Throughout Korean cinema history, films reflected the level of social awareness and activism of different eras. In the past, films showcased social categorizations and the embodiment of gender inequality. For example, historical films such as Hanging Tree (1984) and The Surrogate Woman (1986) illustrate how “normal” it was for women in the Chosun era to live under patriarchal social norms. During the 1970s, “hostess films” rose as a genre where films such as Heavenly Homecoming to Stars (1974) and Winter Woman (1977) depicted women as sexual objects under male control. [12] During these years, feminism was largely inexistent or invisible. Films reinforced misguided expectations of how women should behave and denied recognizing systematic gender oppression.

In the 1980s, young female factory workers started the Minjung movement, demanding their basic human rights. In the following years, the movement pushed society to start viewing women as autonomous and independent agents. [13] Mirroring this drive of activism, films started to incorporate social issues into their plots in the 1990s. More feminist movements started to surface and female characters in films began to break the traditional stigma around women. For instance, Happy End (1999) includes a female character who is able to financially support herself through her career [14] and Hot Roof (1995) was successful in expanding identities of women outside its victimized framework, expressing each individual in terms of socioeconomic class, age, occupation, and education. Hot Roof played a significant role in stimulating feminist activists. The movie was more than just a form of entertainment. It was an act of participating “in a virtual rally in the name of feminism”. [15] Such movies like Hot Roof mobilized artivism by inspiring women to dismantle the wall of gender stereotypes and seek self-identity. In 1997, Korea created the Seoul International Women’s Film Festival to showcase gender empowering films and to encourage female filmmakers to claim their rightful space in the industry. [16]

The Korean film industry has been continuing on its path to an active artivist era by embracing female-oriented movies. Recently, Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 (2019) has had quite an impact in Korea upon its release. Originally based on a novel, the movie provides insights into challenges women face in their everyday lives: family and work balance, patriarchal cultural norms, mental health, and exploration of self-identity. This movie openly discusses feminism and critically reprimands male-oriented Korean society. There certainly was a backlash to the movie varying from targeted reviews and public censures to physical boycotting. Yet, the movie has provided a place of healing and solidarity to those who share similar experiences growing up as a woman in Korea. By addressing the deep-rooted marginalization of women, the movie has successfully demonstrated art as a rising platform for future gender empowerment discussions in Korea.

Even though there has been consistent effort to bring LGBTQ+ representation to the film industry since the 1940s [17], it only became truly visible starting in 2005. The King and the Clown (2005) was one of the very few movies that included homosexuality and break the box record in Korea. As a historical film based in the Chosun era, the movie debunked the myth around homosexuality as a modern phenomenon and sparked a positive public curiosity in homosexuality. [18] The following year, No Regret (2006) was released. No Regret (2006) was considered as The King and the Clown in the indie-movie scenery. The director, Leesong Hee-il, is an openly gay activist who utilizes films as advocacy tools to bring attention to the struggles of LGBTQ+ communities in Korea and their ways of navigating a heteronormative society. As Kim and Singer beautifully put it, “If The King and the Clown gently asks for tolerance, No Regret loudly demands recognition”. [19] Leesong’s No Regret is an excellent example of artivism, a perfect combination of activism and self-expression contained within art.

Even though there are fewer movies that portray female queer characters than male queer characters in the Korean film industry, the efforts to be more inclusive of the female queer population has been noteworthy. In the 2010s alone, three mainstream movies with queer female protagonists – A Girl at My Door (2014), Our Love Story (2016), and The Handmaiden (2016) – were released. The Handmaiden was greatly successful in both the Korean and the international film industries. The film is highly praised for its embodiment of strong queer female leading characters and its role as an act of defiance to “hypermasculine state of the Korean film industry, replacing the archetypical all-male ensemble with two women”. [20] Produced by a heterosexual male director, this movie showed that feminism and activism for LGBTQ+ are not solely the responsibility of women and sexual minorities.

There have been several films with transgender characters – Lady Daddy (2010) and Man on High Heels (2014) to name a couple [21]– but the current film industry still considers having transgender characters or casting transgender actors as ‘shocking’. In an attempt to uproot such prejudices, Korea has been hosting the Korean Queer Film Festival since 2001. The festival was curated in an effort to enforce diversity in the Korean film industry and be mindful of the LGBTQ+ community in Korea. [22] This festival has been gaining popularity over the years, serving as a place for people to share their stories and inspire others to take action. The festival has also been an excellent resource for those who want to educate themselves on LGBTQ+ issues. In 2020, the festival will take place from November 5 to November 11.

Art is a tool of self-expression; however, it can influence society depending on how it is consumed. Art can be a peaceful and powerful tool to bring unity among fellow activists. The Korean film industry has been changing and some have been transforming art to become a platform for culturally neglected voices. Even though the progress has been slow and the social feedback has not been entirely amicable, it is still important for us to recognize what and how these industries are changing and how they can create global momentum towards gender empowerment.



[1]: The University of North Carolina, “History of Artivism,” UNC, accessed March 24, 2020, http://artivism.web.unc.edu/artivism/.
[2]: Chela Sandoval and Guisela Latorre, “Chicana/o Artivism: Judy Baca’s Digital Work with Youth of Color,” in Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media, ed. Anna Everett (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 81-108.
[3]: European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), “Exploring the Connections Between Arts and Human Rights,” FRA, accessed March 24, 2020, https://fra.europa.eu/sites/default/files/fra_uploads/fra-2017_arts-and-human-rights-report_may-2017_vienna.pdf.
[4]: United Nations, “Human Rights and Gender,” United Nations, accessed March 18, 2020, https://www.un.org/ruleoflaw/thematic-areas/human-rights-and-gender/.
[5]: Athena Nguyen, Promoting and Protecting The Rights of Lesbians, Bisexual Women, Transgender and Intersex Persons (Bangkok: UN Women, 2016), 1-83.
[6]: Katia Chirizzi (UNOHCHR), “Overview of Normative Framework Protecting Human Rights of LBTI Persons” (presentation, Regional Consultation on Promoting and Protecting the Rights of Lesbians, Bisexual Women, Transgender and Intersex Persons, February 28, 2016).
[7]: UN Women, “Tokyo event showcases new approaches for gender equality and peace,” UN Women, March 13, 2018, https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2018/3/news-tokyo-event-showcases-new-approaches-for-promoting-gender-equality-and-peace.
[8]: UN Women, “UN Women hosts first high-level event on gender diversity and non-binary identities at UN headquarters,” UN Women, July 18, 2019, https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2019/7/news-event-gender-diversity-and-non-binary-identities.
[9]: UN Women, “#Artivism for gender equality,” UN Women, November 14, 2019, https://eca.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/multimedia/2019/11/artivism-for-gender-equality.
[10]: Park Min, “Gender Free,” Marie Claire, accessed March 10, 2020, http://www.marieclairekorea.com/2020/03/celebrity/gender-free-2/.
[11]: Gina Yu, “Images of Women in Korean movies,” in Korean cinema: from origins to renaissance ed. Mi-hyon Kim (Seoul: CommBooks, 2007), 261-268.
[12]: Ibid.
[13]: Hyunjoo Song, “Gender Issues & Feminist Movement in Korea,” KIGEPE, accessed March 24, 2020.
[14]: Ibid.
[15]: Hwang Miyojo, “Korean Film 100 Years: Women’s Faces in Korean Cinema,” Seoul International Women’s Film Festival, accessed March 18, 2020, http://siwff.or.kr/eng/addon/00000001/program_view.asp?m_idx=103108&QueryYear=2019&c_idx=269&QueryType=B&QueryStep=2.
[16]: Seoul International Women’s Film Festival, “Overview,” Seoul International Women’s Film Festival, accessed March 18, 2020, http://siwff.or.kr/eng/addon/10000001/page.asp?page_num=8316.
[17]: Pil Ho Kim and C. Colin Singer, “Three periods of Korean Queer Cinema: Invisible, Camouflage, and Blockbuster,” Acta Koreana 14, no. 1 (2011): 117-136, accessed March 19, 2020, http://www.kci.go.kr/kciportal/landing/article.kci?arti_id=ART001558111.
[18]: Jeeyoung Shin, “Male Homosexuality in “The King and the Clown”: Hybrid Construction and Contested Messages,” The Journal of Korean Studies 18, no. 1 (2013): 89-114, accessed March 19, 2020, https://www.jstor.org/stable/44076778?seq=5#metadata_info_tab_contents.
[19]: Kim and Singer, “Korean Queer Cinema”.
[20]: Kelley Dong, “The Handmaiden,” ReverseShot, October 19, 2016, http://reverseshot.org/reviews/entry/2271/handmaiden.
[21]: Joan MacDonald, “Transgender Character in ‘Itaewon Class’ Reflects Changing Attitudes in South Korea,” Forbes, March 11, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/joanmacdonald/2020/03/11/transgender-character-in-itaewon-class-reflects-changing-attitudes-in-south-korea/#79a62d774112.
[22]: Seoul Queer Culture Festival, “SQCF Information,” SQCF, accessed March 17, 2020, http://sqcf.org/.

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