Korean superwoman swung cameras her way

People | 10 Oct 2019

One of the most prolific actresses of all time, Kim Ji Mee, has been dubbed South Korea's Elizabeth Taylor for her looks, popularity and marriages that challenged social taboos.

As an actress and producer she featured in more than 700 films before retiring in the 1990s, but her personal life was equally groundbreaking at a time when divorce in South Korea carried much stigma for women.

Now 79, her life has been highlighted at this year's Busan International Film Festival, Asia's largest, where six of her movies were shown and she gave a series of talks.

In a suit matching her silver pixie cut, Kim, oozing elegance, said: "I had to be strong in order not to be suppressed. I had to be active in every aspect in my life. When I was busiest I worked for 30 films all at the same time. I had my own children, but I didn't have the time to raise them."

Despite its advances, South Korea is a conservative society where until 2015 anyone indulging in extramarital sex risked a prison term. And Kim married four times at a time when divorced women often faced isolation.

Her spouses include a famed filmmaker, a star singer and top actor Choi Moo Ryong, who was married to another woman when he started dating Kim.

They were the highest-profile couple to be jailed for breaking the adultery law, spending a week in prison in the early 1960s.

They eventually married, but the union ended after six years.

"Human beings have feelings and therefore their minds can change," Kim said. "And when things are bad I don't think you should simply endure. You should get out and better yourself.

"I caused an unprecedented social scandal, but I think I've taken responsibility for all of my actions. I've lived my life with a sense of dignity."

Kim was spotted aged 17 by director Kim Ki Young, whose works continue to inspire many South Koreans. "A bit of an oddball," Kim said of the late director. "He would often give no direction and guidance on acting. When he didn't like something he would just walk away and scratch his head from afar.

"There were many instances where I didn't understand what was going on. But I understand things differently now. I think he was a genius."

She moved into production to make more socially critical movies, starting with 1986's Ticket in which she also starred as the madam of a coffee delivery service staffed by women providing sex services.

For the movie - screened at the festival - Kim and director Im Kwon Taek interviewed women working in so-called "ticket cafes" in the port of Sokcho.

"We would pay for their coffee delivery service so they could come to our hotel and we would listen to their stories for days in tears," Kim said. "This was a period when the whole country was beyond excited as we were going to hold the [1988] Seoul Olympics. But in reality impoverished women were being forced into such work to make ends meet. I was shocked and as a woman I was infuriated."

Before the screening the film faced censorship from the then military government, which claimed the movie "couldn't possibly be based on true stories," and scenes were before it hit cinemas.

A previous project, a tale about a courtesan becoming a nun, was never completed because of strong opposition from Buddhist orders who thought the theme too provocative.

"Kim reigned as the most beautiful woman in South Korea for the longest possible time," BIFF programmer Jung Mi noted. "But Kim also has been a self-reliant woman and a strong human being.

"In the field of cinema, where sexism can be at its worst in South Korea's male-dominated society, Kim has never been an outsider."

As Kim remarked: "I've been ambitious. Anything men can do women can do too."


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