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Han Okhi and the Films of Kaidu Club

There are two prejudices in cinema as it exists: filmmaking is only a man’s job and movies should be a box office success. We, as outsiders, will break these two stereotypes. – Kaidu Club, Chosun Ilbo, March 30, 1974

Existing filmmakers make films to make money, but we make money to make films. – Kaidu Club, Weekly Woman, February 9, 1975

As filmmaker Barbara Hammer proclaimed in 1993, “radical content deserves radical form.” Few filmmakers in South Korean history have so wholly embraced this call to action as Kaidu Club–credited as Korea’s first feminist film collective—and its founder, Han Okhi (b. 1948). During one of the most oppressive decades of South Korean politics and cinema, Kaidu Club pursued a radically feminist intervention through their spectacular experimental filmmaking. Recently, the confluence of Korean media’s global takeover and a surge in South Korean feminism have prompted film scholars and curators to recognize Han Okhi and Kaidu Club’s pioneering roles in the genealogy of South Korean women’s cinema.

In 1974, Han Okhi assembled the collective of amateur women filmmakers in opposition to the acute misogyny of Korean society and the film industry under President Park Chung-hee’s regime. Like Han, its earliest members—Kim Jeomson, Wang Gyuwon, Yi Jeonghui, Han Sunae, and Jeong Myosuk—were graduates from the elite women’s college Ewha University who lacked formal filmmaking training. Named in the fighting spirit of the unbeatable warrior great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan, Kaidu Club sensationally debuted in 1974 when they hosted the First Experimental Film Festival on the rooftop of the Shinsegae Department Store. Combining their eclectic backgrounds in literature, audiovisual design, fine arts, journalism and dance, they collectively produced and presented 16mm amateur experimental films, multimedia and street performances, and academic presentations for approximately four years.

What makes Han Okhi and Kaidu Club unique trailblazers of Korean feminist filmmaking is their wholly experimental approach. Already a well-read feminist, Han discovered the burgeoning experimental filmmaking movement shortly after completing graduate school and identified within the artform its uniquely visceral power to subvert convention, even beyond the confines of the film industry. The exclusion by Chungmuro (Korea’s “Hollywood”) of women filmmakers and its abysmally sexist representations of female characters prompted Kaidu Club to declare in 1975 that “there are no women in Korean film.” However, Kaidu Club did not seek acceptance within these patriarchal systems as filmmakers or film subjects. Rather, the group employed experimental filmmaking to thoroughly disrupt the very logic of these normative systems of oppression.

To this end, Kaidu Club imbued every aspect of their practice with unwavering experimentalism and anti-commercialism. The members collectively served as actors, crew members and editors for each other’s films. They shot 16mm film spontaneously with handheld cameras and without sets or scripts, even turning the shooting process into a protest performance itself. They adopted a formal style that renounced narrativity and linearity to question conventional meaning-making, much in the vein of the feminist film formalism about which the prominent scholar Laura Mulvey was contemporaneously theorizing. Kaidu Club’s cross-pollination of feminism and experimentalism made it a vanguard of both movements and led the collective to produce some of the boldest experimental works of the period. 

Though the group dissolved as its members moved onto other projects, Kaidu Club’s undying commitment to the power of cinema persists in founder Han Okhi’s continued film career. Shortly after the dissolution of Kaidu Club, Han moved to Germany to study theater and film at the Free University of Berlin. After returning to Korea, she founded the Kaidu Production company, directed a handful of personal projects and commissions for various South Korean expositions, and held several esteemed professor and jury positions. She served as a Korean correspondent for the Berlin International Film Festival for more than a decade and, in 1998, published a memoir entitled People Who Are Crazy for Movies are Beautiful. Han’s illustrious and impactful career has been recently honored around the world by festivals including the Toronto International Film Festival, the Seoul Independent Film Festival, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen and the Jeonju International Film Festival.

Han Okhi and Kaidu Club’s intervention into Korean cinema seemed in many ways before its time. For a “first,” Kaidu Club appears something of an anomaly in the lineage of South Korean feminist filmmaking, which, starting in the 1980s, would focus primarily on documentary filmmaking and women’s sociopolitical struggles. Yet it is Kaidu Club’s powerfully subversive response to its political moment that distinguishes it as a trailblazer of experimental and feminist filmmaking for being uniquely, radically both.

The Harvard Film Archive is proud to host the first program in the United States to feature the historic films of Han Okhi and Kaidu Club in collaboration with the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, South Korea. Featuring Han’s later and rarely exhibited work alongside several of her earliest forays into experimental filmmaking, this program recognizes Kaidu Club’s lasting legacy in the realms of South Korean experimental cinema, women’s filmmaking and feminism through the present day. — Hannah Baek

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