34 brilliant movies from female filmmakers

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The debut feature for Ahn Ju-Young provides a lucid portrayal of a special friendship when Bo-hee (Ahn Ji-ho), a timid middle school student, discovers that his birth father is still alive. Feeling betrayed by his mother, Bo-hee teams up with his best friend Nok-yang (Kim Ju-a) to find his father. Highly sensitive, Bo-hee finds himself on an important journey of self-discovery.

Assisted by featuring a series of such likable characters, this is a coming-of-age story that finds its own ways to feel fresh and original. Wholesome, endearing and filled with its own all-consuming charm. 

Ounie Lecomte's affecting and powerful debut feature is a very personal story for the director and the audience are the beneficiaries of such a candid view of her childhood. A young girl is suddenly left at a rural orphanage by her father and natural emotions rather than sensationalised set-ups drive this personal story for Lecomte as this was once her fate. 

 

Having lived the often heart-breaking reality of the situation, Lecomte is acutely aware of the deep narrative value of her story which is bought to life by a fine performance by Kim Sae-ron. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

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The fifth film from Boo Ji-young propelled her into the global film festival circuit, tapping into her interest in issues related to women and labourers in South Korea. It focuses on employees of a retail supermarket who band together when the contract workers are laid off. The film has that perfect power balance of a superb narrative in its own right while providing a vital social critique. 

 

The female characters drive the change throughout the film, standing their ground and providing a route through to progress. Compelling throughout, this is a powerful film that critiques capitalism and champions workers' rights. 

If you are going to launch your directorial career, there might be no better producer by your side that legend Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden). Having worked with Park as scripter on Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), Lee Kyoung-mi directed this smart comedy filled with surprises. It is brilliantly bizarre and sometimes dark, but considering who is behind it that can come as no surprise. 

 

Yang Mi-sook (Gong Hyo-jin), nicknamed Miss Carrot, teaches Russian at High School, but she is wildly unpopular and rarely grabs the students' attention. She harbours a long-term crush on colleague Seo Jong-cheol (Lee Jong-hyuk) but a rival emerges. 

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Jung Joo-ri’s low-budget high-impact debut feature manages to tackle a smorgasbord of social issues, prominently the contentiousness of LGBT rights in Korea. Police officer Lee Young-nam (Bae Doona) is moved from Seoul to a small rural outpost  after a personal scandal. There she bonds with Sun Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron), a timid 14-year old who suffers at the hands of bullies and her drunken stepfather Yong-ha. 
 

A limited budget of just US$300k, with leading stars agreeing not to be paid, Jung carves out one of Korea's most important films, as LGBT discrimination, domestic violence and alcohol abuse issues are unpacked. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

A market trader becomes the victim of sexual abuse as her family and colleagues struggle to support her in Kim Mi-jo’s confronting debut feature. The concept of sex crimes against elderly people, unpacked in 2019’s excellent An Old Lady (also featured on this list), and how these crimes are underplayed and overlooked, is returned to in this brief but challenging drama.

 

Director Kim uses a wide range of unique camera angles, from extended single takes through to a Western-style shot between the legs like a stand-off scene. She also demonstrates a knack for tough topics in GullREAD OUR FULL REVIEW

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Just 31 years-old when she made A Haunting Hitchhike, Jeong Hee-Jae has crafted an often bleak and unrelenting outing here. Looking for the mother she has never seen, 16-year-old Jeong-ae and her friend Hyojeong begin on a journey. Though she is still unable to find her mother, Jeong-ae meets a man she suspects may be Hyojeong’s biological father instead. 

 

A gloomy indie flick with strong strands of melodrama through the final act, it is a fine exhibition in how those dark pockets of Korean cinema are not just restricted to the headline thrillers you have heard of before. 

Based on the bestselling novel All She Was Worth by Japanese writer Miyabe Miyuki, this psychological mystery-thriller stars Kim Min-hee (Right Now, Wrong Then; The Handmaiden), Lee Sun-kyun (Paju, Parasite) and Jo Sung-ha (Spider Forest, The Yellow Sea), so there is absolutely no reason why this film by Byun Young-joo should not be propelled to the top of your must-watch list. 

 

When veterinarian Mun-ho tries to find his fiancée after she disappears just before their wedding, he discovers some disturbing truths about her. Intriguing, creepy and a puzzle worth piecing together. 

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Actor, director and writer Jeong Ga-young takes full ownership of this project, starring as a filmmaker in Heart, a modern tale of love delivered with heaps of awkwardness. Ga-young (Jeong Ga-young herself) arrives at the studio of an old flame to seek his advice about a new crush, a married man. The pair sit down and discuss the predicament, but there are more vital details to emerge. 

 

This is a very personal piece of film-making and fans of Hong Sangsoo are likely to find a new home with the work of Jeong Ga-young, complete with plenty of meta-commentary in this short and sweet 70-minute outing.

Patient, perfectly pitched and able to present soul-stirring interactions with maximal confidence, House of Hummingbird is an unthinkable debut feature. Yet first outing it is, as Kim Bora manages to announce herself as a modern filmmaker we will be likely viewing and discussing for several years to come in this masterfully crafted and contemplative coming-of-age drama.

Eun-hee (Park Ji-hoo) is a restrained 14-year-old attempting to juggle young love, a demanding education system, and a cold and sometimes violent family home life in this modern classic. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

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Yoon Ga-eun has made two films and they both find their way onto this list. Here we follow Ha-Na, a 12-year-old girl who worries about her constantly bickering parents. During summer vacation, Ha-Na meets sisters Yoo-Mi and Yoo-Jin who hate the fact their family moves so frequently. The trio of girls become friends and start to share their worries in life with each other. 

 

Warm yet bittersweet, it is a powerful demonstration of how children handle the problems in their lives. Three superb lead performances from the children and some startling cinematography brings that tale alive. 

Academic at Harvard University turned superb filmmaker, it is fair to say Gina Kim has the smarts and talents usually reserved for whole civilisations. Her first feature is cut in two parts, both on a young women plagued by loneliness. One part is set in California where Korean student Gah-in is involved in an affair with the married Jun, the second part is set in Korea centered on Jun's estranged Korean-American wife.

Visually-stunning, it taps into Kim's interest in issues such as eating disorders and the struggle for personal identity. Do seek out Kim's award-winning short Bloodless (2017) about sex workers for US army stationed in South Korea since the 1950s. 

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The debut from Park Chan-ok follows Lee Won-sang (Park Hae-il), a lovelorn graduate who finds himself writing for the editor who recently wooed his girlfriend. Despite this, he deeply respects his boss (Mun Sung-kun) and starts to bond with him when another crush comes along in photographer Park Seong-yeon (Bae Jong-ok), but Won-sang seems to be walking into the same trap again. 

 

Mentored by legendary filmmaker Hong Sangsoo, this is evident in Park's own work which focuses on character drama and leans heavily into subtle and emotional elements of film craft. 

Based on the Korean bestseller of the same name by Cho Nam-joo which charts the daily struggle of women against endemic sexism, this was masterfully bought to the big screen by Kim Do-young, the first directorial gig for the TV and film actress. The book, and then this film, sparked fierce feminist debates across Korea and put such issues front and centre.  

Kim Ji-young, a common Korean name thus representing any Korean woman, is born into a typical patriarchal family and throughout we see sexism and misogyny as these powerful, invisible forces that seep from almost every pore of society. 

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The first of two films from Yim Soon-rye on this list (though her entire filmography is worth your time), Little Forest is based on the manga series of the same name by Daisuke Igarashi. After failing her test to become a teacher, Hye-Won (Kim Tae-Ri), turns her back on the busy city life in Seoul and moves back to her hometown in the countryside to heal her emotional wounds with her long-time friends.

 

This is not a film of conflict, it is about how letting go can be the best way to set us free. There is lots of cooking, eating and talking, and it is all the better for it. A simple, warm hug of a film. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

After several years as producer to Hong Sangsoo, Kim Cho-hee emerged from his shadow to make this simple yet deceptively profound first film. Tender and funny, it is riddled with its own distinctive charm and held together with its smart shot selection and strong performances. While there are strands of Hong in its portrayal of human interactions, Kim produces something unique and very much her own.

After the death of her director, a film producer Chan-sil (Kang Mal-geum) meanders through the aftermath of the event. She moves to more humble living arrangements and attempts to seek a future in film somehow. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

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Yi Okseop's first film is certainly unique. The set-up alone should make that clear when a radiologist is snapped having sex in the X-ray room. The image then circulates in the hospital and a nurse, Yoon-Young (Lee Joo-Young), fears that she might be one of the skeletons. The next day she spends time with her boss, all while mysterious sinkholes pop-up around Seoul. 

 

Unlikely to be for everyone, this quirky, vibrant and sometimes cartoonish film seems to be skipping along through various episodes, but it is all building towards a very surprising ending. 

One of those films where you instantly fall in love with its tone and delivery, and indeed its deeply lovable lead, Jeon Go-woon's debut won her a host of awards. It follows Miso (Esom), who when faced with rising rent, decides that her remaining money is best spent on her what she loves most: cigarettes, whiskey and her boyfriend. So she leaves her flat and sofa-surfs with old friends instead. 

 

It is a film filled with such brilliant interactions, often hilarious and always interesting. A satire of our relationships with friends and that feeling that the world is leaving us behind as we struggle on.

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An omnibus of four stories by different directors, Kim Sung-Ho and three female filmmakers in Lee Soo-Youn, Shin Su-Won and Hong Ji-Young. 'Circleline' centres on a man laid off as his wife becomes pregnant, 'Star Shaped Stain' sees a mother wonder if her dead daughter might be alive, 'E.D. 571' is the return of a possible daughter, while 'In Good Company' is a worker facing an unfair dismissal.

 

Modern Family has not gathered the reach of some other films on this list and that deserves to be rectified. As the name suggests, it is about the modern idea of a family and how that structure has shifted in contemporary sands. 

The family unit is an important topic for Korean cinema and in Yoon Dan-bi's debut feature we are given a natural view of how families interact daily as they deal with festering anxiety and loss. Much of the film is the simple act of the family meal. The group sat crossed-legged at the dining table, enjoying their meals and wrestling with their emotional loads in the process.

Okju (Choi Jung-un) and her younger brother Dongju (Park Seung-jun) move into their grandfather’s house along with their single father. It takes time and effort to set into their new environment. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

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Tackling the often-ignored topic of the sexual abuse of the elderly, this is a subtle yet powerful treatment of a harrowing event. While the topic of the sexual abuse of an elderly person may seem too heavy to be lifted out of the bleakness of its subject matter, Lim Sun-ae's film has a tenderness that floods you with empathy. It is also about our treatment of the elderly and our regular failures on that front. 

 

When Hyo-jeong (Ye Su-jeong) claims a young male therapist has raped her, we join her on the battle to be believed, accompanied by her friend Nam Dong-in (Ki Joo-bong), who becomes a passionate defender of her claims. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

Yet another debut feature on this list, this time from Han Ka-ram who tackles another issue prominent on this rundown – Korea's youth and their contemporary worries. Here a young woman, Ja-young (Choi Hee-seo), abandons her plans for a career in the civil service after an argument with her mother and instead looks for purpose in her life elsewhere. 

This is a powerful and honest film, one that is likely to strike a chord with many audience members. We ask young people to make large, life-defining decisions when they are still to settle into their own skin. 

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Director Park Chan-ok manages to progress her story here, jumbling the time passages we see in the process, while chiefly focusing on the cerebral aspects of our characters’ fortunes. She inverts notions of skipping any psychological aspects, instead placing such angst front and centre as we explore a young girl’s complex relationship with her sister’s husband.

 

Beyond this, we also peer into the lives of the inhabitants of the title city Paju – located on the North/South Korean border – and facing forced gentrification and aggressive development. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

While there have been plenty of emotional drama and coming-of-age stories on the list so far, here we see director Shin Su-won take on the often male-dominated thriller genre, producing a film which returns to the high school angst and pressure issues that are seen in other Korean films, especially the famous Whispering Corridors horrors series. 

 

Pluto centres on the top one per cent of students at a fiercely competitive high school. Grades are all that matter here, with even murder and suicide seeming to be of secondary importance compared to those exam performances. 

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Moon So-ri, who produced that jaw-dropping performance in Lee Chang-dong's Oasis (2002), is behind the camera in this feature which consists of three separate short films made in the course of Moon's enrolment at Chung-Ang University. Moon previously wrote and directed three short films “The Actress” (2014), “The Running Actress” (2015), and “The Best Director” (2015), and they are all together here. 

 

Featuring much of the same characters and cast, this is yet another Hong Sangsoo inspired inclusion on this list, demonstrating that Moon's acting talent has been transferred to the director's chair also. 

The second film on the list from Boo Ji-young, in her debut feature here she manages to perfectly capture female interactions and the atmosphere that is created in such conversations. The sudden death of her mother brings Myung-eun (Shin Min-a) back home to Jeju island where she reconnects with her estranged sister Myung-ju (Gong Hyo-jin) and her family. 

A deeply grounded film that relies on the performances of Shin Min-a and Gong Hyo-jin, who provide a realistic view of the relationship between sisters and how they can grow apart and come back together again. 

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“What’s so important about the past? The present matters,” states one of director Jeong Jae-eun's fivesome of high school friends transiting into womanhood and finding their once watertight bonds are starting to fissure. Jeong’s debut feature is an understated and deeply naturalistic portrait of the prickly transition from being a carefree gang of girls to inheriting the toil and insecurities of the grown-up world.

 

It is about how friendships survive many challenges in life. How they evolve and take new forms in adulthood. That friend you can call after months and pick up where you left off. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

It is two from two for director Lee Kyoung-mi, who appears earlier in this list for Crush and Blush, again teaming up with Park Chan-wook to superb effect here. The Truth Beneath follows Kim Yeon-hong (Son Ye-jin) and her young politician husband (Kim Joo-hyuk). Just days before the election, the pair's daughter goes missing, leading Yeon-hong down a twisted path of discovery. 

 

Utterly riveting, packed with suspense, Son Ye-jin also provides a simply brilliant performance to bring everything together. Captivating throughout, its final act is enough to leave you staggering from your seat. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

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This lively and engaging rom-com boasts several dramatic facets. When the secret relationship of two bank colleagues ends, a toxic aftermath ensues. Interactions between the pair and their individual actions are churlish, selfish and outright malignant. Not just to each other either, but to those in the blast zone of their spiteful attacks too.

The debut feature for Roh Deok, a script editor for the wild and hilarious masterpiece Save the Green Planet! (2003), who demonstrates considerable directorial chops here and a willingness to blend styles. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

The second Yim Soon-rye film on this list after Little Forest is a bittersweet drama which does a brilliant job of depicting ordinary modern day Koreans. The film's title refers to a band going nowhere. After another poor gig, the saxophonist quits and the three remaining band members try to trudge on, heading to the lead singer's hometown, Suanbo, to see if their fortunes can change. 

 

Simply a superb indie film, one that is both highly poignant yet often understated. It also inspired a musical offspring Go! Waikiki Brothers starring North Korean defector Kim Young-un which even made it the US. 

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Based on the true story of a Korean housewife imprisoned in Martinique after being accused of drug smuggling at a Paris airport, filming took place at a women's prison in the Caribbean island, a genuineness that runs throughout the film. The movie follows Jeong-yeon's struggle to get a trial in France, while the Korean embassy there show nothing but disinterest in her fate. 

 

Directed by Bang Eun-jin, who starred in 301, 302 and Address Unknown, who manages to demonstrate the emotional pain of Jeong-yeon's situation and the torment of a mother kept from her child. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

Heartwarming and deeply satisfying to behold, The Way Home was a domestic and international smash and remains one of Korea's most highly rated films. It is a wonderful reminder of the unconditional love that grandparents bestow on their grandchildren, convincingly crafted by Lee Jeong-hyang, who has sadly only provided three films to date, starting from 1998. 

The Way Home centres on a city-born grandson who goes to live with his rural grandmother. Unimpressed by rural life without his city comforts, his anger is softened by the unrelenting love of his grandmother. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

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Born in 1923, Park Nam-ok is considered Korea's first female director. Park had to battle a tough industry and gender discrimination to craft The Widow in 1955, a fine film that would prove to be her only feature. Widow Min-ja is one of many thousands of Korea War widows. She remains loyal to her husband’s memory, but has her head turned by a new love interest. 

 

A screening at the first Women’s Film Festival in Seoul propelled the film into wider appreciation. To view The Widow is to gaze upon a genuine piece of historical film-making which remains important today. 

The list ends with the second film from Yoon Ga-eun which latches onto her chief theme-focus of youth. Sun (Choi Soo-in) is an elementary school girl who becomes a transfer student during the summer holidays. When the new school year begins, this bright new friendship is put to test as Sun continues to be the target of bullying by her other classmates.

 

It is impossible to avoid falling in love with the sweet Sun and a series of superb performances gives the film such seamless authenticity. Childhood can be tough and The World of Us is a fine reminder of that. 

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