SEOUL, South Korea — 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-a-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.
She teamed with a male writing partner, Lee Dong-hoon, whom she regarded as “progressive,” and set to work on the script, which she knew had to have two elements: The age difference between the lovers had to be large, and the woman had to be her lover’s mentor, his superior.
Arguments ensued. “Even he didn’t like the idea of this older woman lusting after a younger man,” Lee recalled. “These things are just not discussed in Korea.” The pair worked out their differences and shared writing credit.
Lee eventually raised money for the film from her old fellow student demonstrators. Finding actresses proved easier.
Park Hee-jin jumped at the chance to play a supporting character who introduces the professor to her lover. The one-time television comic was looking for film roles, but no male director would give her a chance.
“The film industry treated me like damaged goods, but Young-mi immediately took me seriously,” she said. “I didn’t have a moment’s hesitation taking the role.”
In part because of a six-minute sex scene, Lee expects her project to be given an 18-and-older rating. On the set, the discomfort of many male crewmembers was palpable: Some accused Lee — who’s single — of trying to win a younger man herself. Once, when she took a bathroom break, a male crewman slid into her chair and started directing the action. She fired one assistant director who challenged her as being too inexperienced to make such a serious film.
One scene that made men on set uneasy involved the professor watching as her lover and husband do the dishes after a meal. “She sits behind them and appraises their bodies,” Lee recalled. “Her lover is tall and taut; her husband short. And she asks herself about her mate, ‘What did I ever see in him?’
“Women who have seen the movie relate to the scene. Because just like men, we look at bodies; we compare. We desire.”
Still Lee insists that hers isn’t a protest film. “I want the audience to tap into their own feelings,” she said, “and gain the strength to follow their own sexual desires — both women and men.”