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Director Young-mi Lee upends Korean mores

In her feature debut, 'Secrets, Objects,' a middle-aged woman has an affair with a much-younger man.

April 29, 2011|By John Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Filmmaker Young-mi Lee directed "Secrets, Objects."
Filmmaker Young-mi Lee directed "Secrets, Objects." (Matt Douma, For The Times )

Reporting from Seoul —

Young-mi Lee is a South Korean filmmaker who likes to expose secrets. Her movies plumb deep into her characters' psyches, revealing confidential lives and repressed desires.

Her 10 short films have been populated by the likes of a cab driver who realizes she's a lesbian; a composer with a closeted sexual drive; and two roommates — one Japanese, one Korean — whose sublimated racism is exposed in a battle over a man.

"I like to focus on a person who doesn't look very special and dig deep into their life," she said. "And every single time, this otherwise very normal character is harboring a huge secret."

Now, in her first feature-length movie, "Secrets, Objects," the 45-year-old London-trained director is taking on her most controversial subject yet: the voracious, hidden sexual appetite of a supposedly happily married, middle-aged woman in Seoul.

The movie premieres Saturday at South Korea's Jeonju International Film Festival and is still looking for domestic and international distribution, yet already it's raising eyebrows. In a country that's hypermodern in many regards, "Secrets, Objects," shines an uncomfortable spotlight on the still very traditional mores of marriage and the identity of wives vis-à-vis husbands.

The film centers on a 40-year-old college professor, played by Jang Seo-hee, who maintains a supersized inner lie: Though she's the author of a bestselling book on how to maintain a happy marriage, she long ago separated from her husband. But in a culture where many women lack a public persona outside their relationship, she feels forced to keep the breakup a secret.

Her charade unravels after she stumbles into a relationship with a man 19 years her junior, played by Jung Suk Won, a male escort who also happens to be her student. Their frank, often out-of-control affair teaches her how to pursue her sexual fantasies in a world dominated by men's desires.

The film stands out against typical South Korean movie fare in which women are seldom the pursuers and in which older women are often portrayed as sexless housewives whose ferocity is expressed in their protectiveness of their marriages and children but never in the bedroom.

"The movie has two very deep-rooted taboos," said Korean film critic Kim Young-jin. "It breaks the Confucian teaching about teachers and students and will make people very uncomfortable with the portrayal of a middle-aged woman driven by her sexual desire. It's an incredibly provocative film for Korea."

Not surprisingly, it wasn't easy for Lee to fund her million-dollar budget.

"When I showed the script to potential female investors, they all said, 'This is my story,' but most were too afraid to take on the system," Lee recalled. "With the men, their faces changed when they read it. I could tell instantly that they didn't like it; they didn't like the role reversal."

The filmmaker — whose shorts have been featured at festivals in London, São Paulo, Brazil; Berlin and San Francisco — recalls being aware, even as a child in the 1970s, of the unequal relations between the sexes in South Korea.

"Men don't play by the same rules," she said. "When I was 9, I looked at my parents and said, 'If this is married life, I'm never going to get married.'"

Lee lost herself in the darkness of movie theaters. As a college student in the 1980s, she took part in demonstrations against South Korea's repressive military regime. Her activism earned her four months in jail, where she shared a cell with nine other women, seven of whom had been accused of adultery. (Even today, technically, men and women can be charged with adultery, although men can pay for sex and not face charges.)

"I was shocked," Lee recalled. "These women were the same as me. They didn't look like prostitutes or even criminals."

One told Lee she had fallen for a man 15 years her junior. She ran off with her lover on his motorcycle, pursued by her husband; she was later sentenced to jail for her indiscretion. The woman told her: "I loved him so much, but I still wanted my husband too. I wanted them both in my house."

Still young and inexperienced, Lee couldn't grasp the poignancy of the woman's pain. "But her story pierced my heart like an arrow."

In 1995, she left South Korea to attend Britain's National Film and Television School. Six years later she returned to Seoul. Though much changed after the military regime was toppled in 1987 and democracy had blossomed in her country, she felt men still ruled the roost in 21st century South Korea.

Lee plunged into moviemaking. In 2008, she decided to make her first feature-length film. And she knew the subject she had to explore. "If I didn't tell this story, I'd regret it for my entire life as both a woman and a filmmaker," she said.

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