Updated: Mar 19
As we continue to celebrate women this March, GwenchaNoona takes a look at the female power behind some of Hallyu's most acclaimed and popular hits.
It's well known among fans that around 90% of k-drama screenwriters are women. Kim Eun-sook (Secret Garden, Descendants of the Sun, Goblin, Mr. Sunshine), Park Ji-eun (My Love from the Stars, Legend of the Blue Sea, Crash Landing on You), and Lee Woo-jung (Reply series, Hospital Playlist) are among the top names in the industry, whose projects are always highly anticipated. Thanks to the multitude of women screenwriters, the world of k-dramas is populated with an array of strong female characters who audiences can relate to, and even admire.
Despite this, the glass ceiling for producers and directors has yet to be fully shattered. But hope is on the horizon, thanks to a number of trailblazing women who are breaking barriers in both film and television production.
THE MEDIA MOGUL
Miky Lee, Vice-Chair, CJ Group
It would be impossible for anyone who has had some exposure to k-drama and k-pop not to have been indirectly influenced by Miky Lee, also known as Lee Mi-Kyung.
A genuine chaebol, she is the granddaughter of the Lee Byung-chul, the founder of Samsung. Born in the United States and raised in Seoul, she was educated in some of the best universities in the east and the west: She is a graduate of Seoul National University (undergraduate), Harvard University (graduate), and Sookmyung Women's University (postgraduate). She is fluent in four languages: Korean, English, Mandarin, and Japanese.
But her impressive background and scholastic achievements don’t really speak much about her contribution to the Korean and global entertainment industry. Her artistry, business savvy, and love for Korean film allowed her to catapult Korean entertainment to previously unheard of heights.
“I used to carry DVDs and go to Warners, Universal, Fox, anybody I had a chance with, and pitch Korean film, Korean film, Korean film. No one thought Korean films were good enough to do anything with,” she said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last year.
Her grit and perseverance paid off. When Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004, Hollywood and the rest of the world took notice of the wonderfully complex artistry of Korean cinema. Since then, Miky Lee through CJ Group, of which she is vice-chair, has financed and distributed award-winning films such as Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006), Mother (2009), Snowpiercer (2013), The Handmaiden (2016), and most recently, Parasite (2019).
Beyond films, Miky Lee is also credited with putting the world’s spotlight on the Korean music industry by promoting k-pop in KCON conventions in the United States. But aside from spotting goldmines in Korean arts, Miky Lee is also a savvy businesswoman. Through her efforts, CJ Group invested $300 million in Steven Speilberg's Dreamworks SKG in 1995. She has appeared on Forbes Asia's Power Businesswomen list in 2012 and 2014. And in 2017, she was named one of the founding Leadership Champions of the World Bank affiliated Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative.
There seems to be nothing that this woman with intuitive artistry, business acumen, and perseverance can’t do. But the real-life wonder woman with a net worth of about $500 million is surprisingly and humbly clear about her role in bringing Korean entertainment to the rest of the world. "I'm happy to be the bridge. Just walk over me," she told The Hollywood Reporter. "As long as you cross my body bridge, it means we are all successful."
THE PDs (Producing Directors)
In Korean television production, the two most powerful people on the set who are ultimately responsible for a series' success are the director (referred to as PDs—short for producing/production director) and the screenwriter. Here are some of the women PDs behind some of the most well-known TV series, whether dramas or variety programs.
Switching styles and genres clearly isn't a problem for PD Kim Hee-won. Whether it's a historical drama or campy comedy, audiences can be assured that when she's at the helm, they're in for a rollercoaster of a ride. In 2017, PD Kim directed the hit makjang Money Flower starring Jang Hyuk and Park Se-young. In 2019, she directed a cast led by Yeo Jin-goo in the cinematic Joseon-era sageuk The Crowned Clown, one of the highest-rated cable dramas of all time. She is currently working on the crime-comedy drama Vincenzo with Song Joong-ki, which is on track to break tvN ratings records as well.
PD Lee Na-jung has been working behind-the-scenes for over a decade. She was an assistant director of the 2009 drama Hot Blood, and in 2012 was selected as the PD for the dark melodrama The Innocent Man. She has also mastered the rom-com genre, having directed successful series Oh My Venus (2015), Love Alarm Season 1 (2019), and the realistic drama Fight For My Way (2017), which earned critical acclaim and numerous awards.
She has also had success as a film director: the historical film Snowy Road (2015), set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, won Best Foreign Film at the 24th Golden Rooster & Hundred Flowers Film Festival. She has recently been announced as the director of Mine, a female-centric drama starring Lee Bo-young and Kim Seo-hyung.
PD Bang Geul-yi is the first female Main PD of beloved variety show 2 Days,1 Night in 13 years—a milestone in the highly male-dominated arena of variety show production. In 2019, PD Bang bravely took the helm of a show that had been rocked by scandals and made sure to reinvent it. Managing an all-male cast, she slowly shifted the series from its traditional penalty-driven concept to a healing-game show, putting more emphasis on values such as charity and togetherness, instead of the female frenzy and individualistic undertones of the previous seasons.
A resident PD at MBC for over a decade, PD Jung directed six dramas from 2011 to 2018—a combination of daily and weeknight series you're probably not familiar with. Her brilliant work on the historical drama The Red Sleeve gave the struggling network its first mega hit in years, and earned for her the nickname “갓지인”or “God Ji-in. Her masterful direction elevated the historical romance to a powerfully feminist story, and she was awarded Best Director at the MBC Drama Awards.
With over 20 films under her belt—most of which focus on female empowerment and representation—Yim Soon-rye is considered a bona fide auteur in Korean cinema. She is known for making heart-warming films, using long dialogues and slow camera movements to tell personal narratives. She began to exhibit her personal arthouse style in the painful drama Waikiki Brothers (2010) and flexed it further in The Best Moment of Our Lives in 2014, which was about the South Korean women's national handball team. Known to stay away from the violence rife in South Korean blockbuster cinema, she is also known for successfully adapting manga and novels such as Little Forest (2018), Rolling Home with a Bull (2010), and the controversial South Bound (2013).
Known for telling stories about children and the adolescent experiences of girls, Ga-eun is an up-and-coming director who has won many Korean and international awards for her sensitive style and fresh direction. She is best known for her 2013 short film Sprout, about a little girl who leaves home alone for the first time in order to buy sprouts for their meal. She then proceeded to make the multi-awarded feature-length film The World of Us (2016), which has been praised for its nuanced telling of female friendship and bullying.
Screenwriter and director Lee Kyoung-mi is a protégé of the legendary director Park Chan-wook. After working as an assistant director on his psychological thriller Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), she went on to direct her first full-length feature film, the black comedy Crush and Blush (2008) starring Gong Hyo-jin and produced by Park Chan-wook himself.
In 2016, she directed and co-wrote the political thriller The Truth Beneath with Park Chan-wook, and earned a Best Director nod from the Korean Association of Film Critics. Under her direction, Son Ye-jin won six acting awards for her performance as a mother desperate to find her missing child. Director Lee most recently lent her truly unique worldview to the bizarre Netflix Originals production School Nurse Files starring Jung Yu-mi and Nam Joo-hyuk.
If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in our special articles in celebration of International Women's Month:
Our Favorite K-drama Females
Her-stories: Female-led K-dramas (Ensembles)
Her-stories: Female-led K-dramas (Solo/Duo)