More than 20 years after her debut feature Take Care of My Cat had made its festival premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, South Korean filmmaker Jeong Jae-eun returned to the Dutch festival (virtually) with her latest work. Jeong directed an episode of the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) documentary series Modern Korea, which looks back at recent Korean history through footage pulled from KBS’s voluminous archives. Her episode, The Age of Beasts, is a portrait of cultural misogyny, tracing years of two-steps-forward, one-step-back, three-steps-sideways social evolution. Jeong’s skill at cutting between the many different sources she draws footage from elevates what could have been a basic talking-points documentary into a riveting montage of shared attitudes and prejudices making tangible impacts, and how in turn such events shape those sentiments.
Take Care of My Cat is one of those cult films whose audience doesn’t come from any particular subset of cinephilia, but simply consists of whoever chances to discover it. The movie has long been out of print and inconsistently available on streaming services, leaving it mainly to circulate among torrenters, a precious digital artwork. (A 4K restoration premiered last year, but it has yet to play outside Korea.) Focusing on five women who have recently graduated high school (two of them played by now-superstars Bae Doona and Lee Yo-won, both of whom were at the time early in their careers), it pays exquisite attention to the wistful transitory elements of young adulthood. No film Jeong has made since has captured as much attention, but she brings the same feminist bent to The Age of Beasts.
The episode is a montage of clips from news reports, talk shows, dramas, press conferences, public service announcements, and other television objects about the standing of women in South Korean society. The footage ranges from the late 1970s (the timeline begins in earnest in the early ’80s, as the military dictatorship began to ease) through the mid-’90s, using at its stopping point the country’s first sexual harassment lawsuit in 1994. The episode opens with a queasy scene from a TV drama in which a trench-coat-clad stranger accosts a girl minding her own business on a playset, before transitioning to a talk show panel discussion about possible revisions to laws around the rights of women. Setting the tenor for the quality of discourse the documentary will showcase, the women on the panel make cogent, forceful points about the ways they’re disadvantaged, while the men respond with supreme condescension. One asserts that secretarial work is most appropriate for women because of their “natural beauty,” while another says it is “natural and inevitable” that women default to roles as mothers because they need to nurse their babies.
Deferring to what’s supposedly “natural” is a common refrain in defenses of gender inequity. Jeong undercuts this line of reasoning not just with the counterposed voices of passionate feminist activists, but also with her editing. If the status quo is what’s “natural,” then what does nature look like? From the archive she pulls a growing stack of clips about the rapes, abductions, and murders of girls and women. Often there is no time for anything longer than a brief snippet of a news anchor rattling off the name of yet another victim. (Several incidents from the Hwaseong serial killer case, the basis for Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, make appearances.)
There’s another element which starts out with a small presence but gains attention as the documentary progresses: the use of modern-day talking heads, external from the archive, commentating on the history at hand. They are somewhat redundant, expressing explicitly what Jeong already says through her framing. But they are also authoritative female voices—a counseling center worker, a women’s studies teacher, an anti-sexual-violence educator—within a work whose landscape is dominated by men, and they are helpful at filling in details of historical context which might not necessarily be apparent.
The episode consists of more than argument through repetition, though. The early sequences lean more heavily on factual footage, but increasingly Jeong interlaces this material with clips from fictional takes on these same issues. Court proceedings around a young woman who with the aid of her boyfriend killed her sexually abusive stepfather cut freely between the real-life footage and scenes from a TV show which dramatized the story. The same happens for the groundbreaking sexual harassment case, wherein the assistant of a professor at Seoul National University successfully sued him for groping and propositioning her. Jeong is scrutinizing not just how misogyny is reported on but how culture then grapples with it, and questions what both is gained and lost in the constant telling and retelling and reshaping of events. One of the most subtle threads concerns the aggressive authoritarian reflex in contemporary societies. With each new call for reform in dealing with violence against women, there is a response demanding increases in police budgets and resources.
One of the many dramas from which Jeong draws footage is Ieodo, a 1979 episode of the KBS series Korean Ghost Stories, a popular horror anthology. At Jeong’s request, the episode has been placed to view alongside The Age of Beasts in IFFR’s program, helping to ground viewers with a vision of female-oriented horror produced in Korea just before the time period she covers in her documentary. Directed by Choi Sang-sik, the hourlong production is informed by folk legends from Jeju Island, which notably has matriarchal aspects to its culture because of the economy’s longtime reliance on haenyeo (female sea divers). Ieodo was an island in the local lore, the place where the souls of fishermen lost at sea would be trapped. Such legends had previously inspired works like the celebrated novelist Yi Chong-jun’s 1974 mystery novel Ieodo, which in turn was adapted into a film by Kim Ki-young in 1977. In the Korean Ghost Story spin on these stories, the island is a utopian space, ruled by women who do not allow the men to leave.
But because Ieodo is a place free of want or hardship, being ruled by women doesn’t sound so bad to the Jeju men in the story. They are a clique of layabouts and oafs, sorely testing any conception of matrimonial harmony. “Life is great without a man! Husbands get in trouble and make their wives miserable,” says one widowed friend of protagonist Kim, who defends her husband, even if she knows he’s most likely at that very moment out gambling. She changes her tune in the next scene when she discovers that he’s stolen the money she was saving to buy a field. Not long after, a supremely misguided attempt by the men to voyage from Jeju to Ieodo results in the husband nearly dying, but not even this moves Kim to consider forgiving him. And then Kim’s next fishing trip brings her to Ieodo.
Contrary to the men’s dreams of the place, Ieodo turns out to get along with only women, all living in regal splendor. From the matriarchal standard set by Jeju culture, then inflected with a satirically mocking, almost misandrist view of men’s worth, the episode posits a place where men are not figuratively useless but literally of no use. The Ieodo women are impregnated in a mystical ceremony by the southern wind. And if they birth a boy? He’s abandoned. In an appropriately mythological twist, violating this last law causes Kim’s eventual ejection from paradise. Despite her contempt for the men in her life, she cannot bring herself to wholly cast away patriarchal strictures.
The story then provides a cruel turn that’s equal parts Twilight Zone and Rip van Winkle. When Kim returns to Jeju, she learns that 100 years have passed. In one last dark bit of commentary, in her former house she sees a familiar scene play out, with the resident wife berating her husband for stealing and gambling away the money she was saving. The suggestion is of an unending cycle of male weakness undermining female strength.
Jeong uses clips from the scenes of the episode set on Ieodo in The Age of Beasts. The conception of an all-woman society is used as a longing contrast to the ugly reality she surveys. Ieodo is a daydream of the disempowered, and the slow but distinctive social progress she documents in the film acts as a rejoinder to that dream. There won’t be a utopia, but it’s possible to build something better in this world.