What do you do when you have a 2 or 3-hour break between classes? Relax? Study? Have you ever considered watching a movie at the theater in SMU Main Library? The theater in the library named Eun Won Hong Film Archives shows a movie at 2 and 7 p.m. every day. One professor has been recommending movies shown in the theatre for the past 9 years. Her name is Hwang Youngmee. Not only is she a famous film critic, she is also a professor at SMU. The Sookmyung Times met up with her to hear about her passionate life story.
I heard that you were a stay-at-home mother before becoming a film critic. What made you switch your career?
Living an ordinary stay-at-home mother life, I read the book A Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. The book was about women’s lives and independence. It moved my heart. I wanted to work, so I studied novel writing and debuted my literary career by writing short story for the magazine Munhaksasang in 1992. However, I felt limited due to the depth of my novels’ content, so I entered graduate school to continue with my major in more depth. In graduate school, my friends and I formed a film study group and published a film critique book based on our personal reviews and opinions. Surprisingly, editor of the film magazine Cinebus somehow came across our book and propositioned us to do contract work as film critics. I have been writing reviews since that time.
When did you first become interested in films?
I lived in Busan for the first fifteen years of my life. I was interested in culture and the arts since my youth, but there weren’t many chances for cultural experiences in Busan. Although Busan is the second largest city in Korea, there weren’t as many concerts or exhibitions as Seoul. The film theater was the only place where I could be exposed to culture, so I went to theatre frequently. In fact, I watched films twice a week. This hobby remained with me even after my family moved to Seoul. I think that lead to my love of films.
You have been recommending films to screen at Eun Won Hong Film Archives since 2005. What motivated you to start this job?
In 2005 the Eun Won Hong Film Archives was founded as tribute to Hong Eunwon, a female film director who is mother of the late Lee Heejae, the professor at Departmet of Library & Information Science. After construction of the theater, Lee Choonsil, Chief Librarian at that time, requested that I recommend films and write the reviews about those films on homepage of SMU Library for students once a week to show in the theater. I felt this would be a great opportunity to do volunteer work for SMU students, for I am an expert with years of film watching experience due to my work as a film critic. Also, I want to introduce films that students rarely approach because they were released in a limited number of select theaters. For that reason, I accepted the proposal to recommend films and I done the job happily over the last nine years.
As an expert, what kind of films would you like to recommend to students? Which features do you consider when judging whether a film is good or not?
A film is composed with many things, but the most important thing is the message the film sends to film-goers. A film’s virtue is opening the public’s eye to life and society in order to remove stereotypes and mannerism in daily life. Good film make people reflect on life, see the world from a different perspective, and restore lost values of lives. Therefore, I usually select films that have powerful messages and influence youth positively. Last year, I published the column Prof. Hwang’s Reading Films at the Sookmyung Weekly, and the first film I reviewed was Welcome. It details a man’s strong love and immigrants’ lives. I believe the film enables students to ponder love and minority. I try to introduce meaningful films to students.
Nowadays, the application Watcha, a film review application, focusing on personal preference, has appeared. Some people say a good film is decided by individual preference; it is not determined by set standards. Knowing this, do you think professional film critics will still be needed?
I have attended many international foreign film festivals. At those festivals, Korean director Kim Kiduk always receives lots of attention. He even won the Golden Lion Prize at Venice Film Festival due to his unique viewpoint based on modernism. However, his films aren’t popular because most people don’t appreciate his films. Regardless of fan base, Kim Kiduk’s films are great. Generally, critics and viewers watch films from different views. Most film watchers place importance on how they feel at the end of a film; on the other hand, critics observe every element of a film: scene direction, scenario, mise-en-scéne, visualization, etc. They judge how effectively a director delivers his/ her message through the film. As one should study hard to get a perfect grade on TOEIC, to truly see every aspect a director exhibits, a critic must learn a variety aspects that comprises the films and train for at least five years by investigating thousands of films. Thus, there is a clear gap between general film watcher and critic reviews. Although preference deserves to be respected, it is unreasonable to judge if a film is good or bad merely by one’s personal preference.
You must have faced plenty of challenges before reaching success in your field. Lots of university students fear trying something new. What advice would you like to give to those students?
I think students need to see life as a long way to go. A good result never comes in short period. To be professional and make a different result from others, at least ten years is needed for a person. If you want to catch a big fish, you have to cast a net far away. Until death, life is process to become fully mature. To turn a rock into a wonderful sculpture, we must shape the stone continuously. Likewise, life reaches full growth through pains. I have never been afraid of challenges and barriers. Instead, I consider every hardship a great chance to mature, so I can enjoy challenges. I would like students to have confidence in themselves. It lets one overcome small adversities. Struggle that doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.
Finally, what does SMU mean to you?
For me, SMU is precious. I have been staying at SMU for almost forty years as a student and professor, and I really appreciate the fact that I had an opportunity to work with great colleagues and met talented students at SMU. I started my new life at SMU. I am sometimes asked for interview from broadcasting stations. Whenever I am interviewed, I prefer introducing myself as a professor of SMU to film critic. Even if it was a short interview, I am proud of SMU and want its name to be spoken with pride often. I hope my career as a film critic helps people to have a positive image about SMU. As a SMU alumnus, I am happy to be able to continue my life at SMU and I enjoy doing volunteer work for the school.
• Graduate of the Division of Korean Language & Literature '80
• Professor at the Communication Development Center
• Member of The Korean Association of Film Critics, and Secretary General of FIPRESCI* from 2012
• Jury of the FIPRESCI Prize at Berlin International Film Festival in 2012, Cannes International Film Festival in 2013
* The International Federation of Film Critics