Spotlight on: Writer Jung Seo-kyung
While everyone is still reeling from the crazy twists and turns of probably the wildest adaptation of Little Women ever to be put on screen, we must pay tribute to the brain behind it all: the celebrated screenwriter Jung Seo-Kyung.
Jung Seo-kyung holds what is presumably one of the most impressive writers’ resumes in k-cinema: she is, after all, the esteemed right-hand scribe of Cannes winner Park Chan-wook, and her scripts (usually co-written with Director Park) have become some of the most lauded films in the world. While many fans have discovered her through her Little Women adaptation (and some through her only other k-drama, 2018’s Mother), Jung has long enjoyed an illustrious reputation in film circles.
In fact, she is said to be the best South Korean film writer working today.
Jung started as a personal writer for director Park Chan-wook in 2005 and since then, has collaborated with the director on every Korean movie he’s made thereafter. Her latest work, the Cannes favorite and official Oscar entry Decision to Leave has led to Director Park finally winning the Best Director trophy at Cannes twenty years after he debuted his iconic Old Boy.
Writer Jung excels not only in crafting film plots that distort tropes and upend expectations, but also excels in creating memorable female characters who inhabit their lives so thoroughly that they become unapologetic, unremorseful, and even uninterested in men. She is also a master at creating intriguing worlds that have little need for cute romances. "Neither the director (Park Chan-wook) nor I can stand romantic things well, but this time I realized that I liked some melodrama," she admitted in an interview about Decision to Leave.
It could be argued that Jung excels in crafting genuinely feminist characters in her works; a casual stroll down Jung’s filmography shows worlds where women survive by the skin of their own teeth and who nearly never need a knight in shining armor. Jung writes women who do not distort themselves to attract a man, and who hardly make romance a priority. If any man expresses interest, they are usually relegated as a mere accessory to the plot or a disposable device to be thrown away once the women get what they want.
Most notably, Jung creates female characters that are messy, irresponsible, and even unlikeable. They can sometimes be difficult to root for, and oftentimes vexing – but that’s exactly what makes them unforgettable. The complexity and heavy nuances Writer Jung infuses into her characters are not for the fainthearted actor, but they serve as a welcome change from a sea of "safe" and pliant roles stunted by the need to maintain "clean" reputations.
To dive into the mayhem of Writer Jung’s imagination, we recommend the following films. But be aware that her film works can be much bloodier, more grotesque, and much more shocking than Little Women. After all, Little Women had to conform to strict TV standards and regulations, while film usually doesn't, allowing its creators more freedom to examine much darker themes and behaviors.
Lady Vengeance (2005)
Writer Jung completes Park Chan Wook’s heralded “revenge trilogy” with the controversial Lady Vengence (2005). While the first two movies of the trilogy are testosterone-driven takes on retribution – with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Old Boy being the first two parts – Lady Vengeance veers into a different territory by offering a female-led take on revenge. While the intensely violent trilogy has divided critics and viewers everywhere, all three remain among South Korea’s truly great films.
In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), a businessman’s daughter is kidnapped. This forces her father to go on a one-man vendetta against her kidnappers. However, his methods of hunting and punishing the criminals grow increasingly cruel and more grotesque, prompting us to question when justice ends and where gross sadism begins. The second part of the trilogy, Old Boy (2003) ventures into even murkier moral waters. Its protagonist (in a now-iconic performance by Choi Min-sik), is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years. Suddenly, he is released without reason, and what follows is…well, the film isn't burned into the brains of everyone who's seen it for no reason.
Enter Lady Vengeance in 2005. Loosely labeled as a dark “comedy-drama,” we finally have a female protagonist Geum-ja (excellently played by Lee Young-ae of Jewel in the Palace fame) who has now been released after being imprisoned for 13 years. She is hellbent on righting her betrayer’s wrongs, but before she can take full retribution, she discovers that she is not the only victim in the madman’s plans.
In a departure from the other two films, Lady Vengeance shows a female take on revenge, and how it can be communally cathartic. Hell truly has no fury like a woman wrongfully imprisoned, and Writer Jung creates an opaque and intriguing protagonist amplified by director Park Chan-wook’s trademark absurdities (and iconic red eyeshadow), eventually becoming one of East Asia’s more memorable female protagonists.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006)
Pop superstar Rain sheds a bit of his wholesome image to play a young man hospitalized for kleptomania and anti-social behavior. There he meets Young-goon (Im Soo-jung), a young woman who thinks she is a cyborg and often licks batteries to “charge” herself. Rain’s gamble on such an offbeat film paid off: for his performance in this film, he won Best New Actor for Film at the 43rd Baeksang Arts Awards.
Billed as a romantic comedy of equals, Writer Jung – with her genre-mixing and wild tonal shifts – once again has crafted characters that are exceedingly honest, genuinely quirky, and self-sufficient.
After creating cyborgs and revenge-fuelled femme fatales, Writer Jung turns to vampire lore in 2009’s Thirst. Inspired by Emile Zola’s novel “Therese Raquin," Thirst chronicles the downward spiral of a vampire priest who eventually falls in love with his friend's wife. But more than just another vampire horror film, Director Park feels thatThirst is more of an exploration of illicit love – a theme both he and Writer Jung explore in many of their films together.
Interestingly enough, the film stars regular collaborators Song Kang-ho (Parasite) and Shin Ha-kyun (Beyond Evil), the pair who played cat and mouse in an earlier Park Chan-wook film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
The Handmaiden (2016)
While Kim Tae-ri's current popularity has skyrocketed because of her role as the fencer Na Hee-do from the k-drama hit Twenty-five, Twenty-one, it is interesting to note that her very first acting job was in the erotically-charged sapphic romp, The Handmaiden.
Like Little Women, The Handmaiden is also an adaptation of an English novel, this time, from the 2002 novel “Fingersmith” by Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Extraordinarily beautiful, with every shot achingly adorned with a lavish British-Japanese aesthetic, The Handmaiden stands out as one of Park Chan-wook’s and Writer Jung’s strongest and most intricate films to date.
Billed as a psychological and erotic thriller, The Handmaiden has earned lavish critical acclaim and has won a ton of film awards. Most notably, it won Best Film Not in the English Language at the 71st British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) and the Grand Prize (Daesang) for Film at the 2017 Baeksang Arts Awards. Once again, Writer Jung suffuses her two female protagonists with the strength and determination to escape their golden cages, and eventually find love and happiness without men.
Not only does Writer Jung enjoy the respect and esteem of Cannes, the BAFTA, and the Oscars, but she has also written a Baeksang Best Television Drama winner, the remarkable 2018 suspense thriller Mother, starring Lee Bo-young (Mine) in one of her strongest performances, the majestic Lee Hye-young, and child acting sensation Heo Yool.
The drama examines this question of what defines motherhood as it follows the story of a substitute teacher (Lee Bo-young) who impulsively runs away with her student when she realizes she is a victim of child abuse. Adapted from a Japanese drama, Mother is every bit as suspenseful as it is dramatic, taking viewers on a roller coaster of emotions as the mother-daughter pair are pursued by law enforcers and the child’s abusers.
Rich symbolism and clever literary references, a hauntingly stirring OST, cinematic photography, and excellent performances (including 2022 breakout star Son Suk-ku as a child abuser), all came together to make one of the most beautiful, heart-wrenching, yet also uplifting television dramas ever made. Mother also won Best New Actress for phenomenal child actress Heo Yool, who was chosen out of a field of 400 children, and received nominations for Best Director (Kim Cheol-kyu), Best Screenplay (Jang Seo-kyung) and Best Actress (Lee Bo-young).
Decision to Leave (2022)
Writer Jung and director Park Chan-wook’s latest collaboration is the romantic mystery Decision to Leave, starring Chinese superstar Tang Wei (Late Autumn) and Hallyu heavyweight Park Hae-il (The Last Princess). It is also the official South Korean entry for Best International Feature Film for next year’s Academy Awards.
Unlike their earlier films that resort to bloody violence and grisly motivations, Decision to Leave marks Writer Jung and Director Park's surprising U-turn to favor heightened emotional cruelty instead. The Cannes favorite tells the story of a detective who falls for a woman who may or may not have killed her husband, and all the morally grey consequences that follow from that dangerous attraction. The film has been hailed by Slash Film as a “fascinating and exquisitely directed film about desire, regret, and love.” Like the self-sufficient leads of Little Women, Writer Jung’s protagonist in this film is a mysterious widow (played to wonderful ambiguity by Tang Wei) who carves her own indiscernible path while toying with the detective’s affections.
Which of Jung's works are you interested to see next?
With references to Lady Vengeance by Lee Tae-hun, Cho Youngwuk, Park Chanwook, Chung Seo-Kyung from Cinéaste Vol. 31, No. 3 (SUMMER 2006), pp. 57-59 and Lai, S. (2014). Sympathy for Lady Vengeance: Feminist ghosts and monstrous women of Asia. Lifted Brow, The, (23), 18-22.