Red Maria (레드 마리아) – ★★★☆☆

Red Maria (레드 마리아)

Red Maria (레드 마리아)

The dilemmas facing women in South-East Asian countries are multitudinous. Despite the great variety of countries within the region, and regardless of the diverse cultures and heritage, each nation has one thing in common – the dominance of patriarchy. As such the role of women as wives, mothers and homemakers has been, and continues to be, difficult to shift even though increasing numbers of women have entered the workplace. Interestingly this in itself is problematic in defining the term ‘labor’ in regards to females. Traditionally the word refers to employment in exchange for money and/or trade goods, but as females occupy such diverse roles the definition is difficult to clarify.

Director Kyung Soon (경순) attempts to address the quandary through her documentary Red Maria (레드 마리아). During the course of the film, the director explores the concept of women’s labor within South Korea, Japan, and The Philippines documenting the lives of a number of females each with her own struggles. From unfairly dismissed employees and care workers, to women working in the sex trade and the homeless, director Kyung Soon seeks to convey that while each of the females within are not connected physically, the trials they endure and their strength of character unite them spiritually in the struggle against oppressive patriarchy. Such an objective is incredibly ambitious, and while this does allow for a highly interesting documentary the sheer number of participants makes the film overstretched and lacking an emotional core, while the editing and other post-production techniques also detract from the experience.

A care worker in Japan allows insight into her daily life

A care worker in Japan allows insight into her daily life

In attempting to convey the daily struggles of South-East Asian women, director Kyung Soon deserves praise indeed as it is rarely touched upon in mainstream cinema. The concept of women’s labor and it’s definition is certainly intriguing given the variety of cultures and statuses within the region. However, her desire to capture so much information is also her undoing as the documentary is, while very interesting, lacking in focus. The multitude of characters that inhabit the film also suffer the same fate as while each person is intriguing, they are given only brief segments of time before the audience is whisked off to another location and situation.

This particularly applies to the women from The Philippines. The Filipino women are far and away the greatest assets of Red Maria. Their stories are poignant and tender, and the sincerity of their emotions and their drive to continue on despite obstacles are the heart and soul of the film. The women profiled are those who have fallen outside the margins, those living in slums, working in the sex trade, and the elderly. Their stories are heart-breaking yet inspiring as they refuse to let the severity of their respective situations dampen their spirits. Scenes in which senior Filipino women describe the rape of an entire village decades before by Japanese soldiers cannot fail to shock, while the generations of women – within the same family – working in the sex trade is incredibly saddening. Likewise, the families living within the slums being forcefully evicted are compelling to say the least. Yet with each struggle there is hope due to the incredible resilience of the women involved, whether fighting for the truth and an apology, studying to change career, or even refusing to move, the Filipino women are inspiring in their strength and tenacity. These scenes also provide Red Maria with the greatest visuals throughout the film. Within the slums for example, a train passes mere inches from the abodes of those that reside there in comically stunning fashion. The senior women show the location of the mass rapes, a large red mansion in the country which is incredibly sinister and reminiscent of horror films. Their stories are the most compelling feature of Red Maria, and had director Kyung Soon continued to follow their development the documentary would be much stronger for it.

Senior Filippino women discuss past atrocities comitted by Japanese soldiers

Senior Filippino women discuss past atrocities comitted by Japanese soldiers

However, as South Korean and Japanese women are also profiled the tone of the documentary consistently changes and is quite jarring. Alternating between these locations also unfairly lessons the impact and seriousness of those in Korea and Japan. While women in The Philippines struggle to survive, the women from other countries are protesting against unfair dismissal, working as care workers or travel agents, or living in a tent in the woods. Their situations are interesting and important in emphasizing alternative forms of patriarchal oppression, but it is impossible not to compare and contrast with the more uncompromising situations faced by their counterparts.  It also doesn’t help that so little screen time is dedicated to them, nor that their innermost thoughts are not really revealed, making it difficult to empathize with the struggles they endure. There are also instances which beg for more insight that never appear, such as workers rights and governmental and police hostility towards demonstrators, the difficulties of living homeless, and being an immigrant bride. Such areas are never explored fully, to the detriment of empathizing with the plights the women face. Additionally some claims – such as South Korea not being ready to accept sex workers – are downright odd, considering the sheer number of Korean prostitutes that operate within the country.

Post-production is also an issue with Red Maria. Generally the editing is competent, yet there are several instances in which the documentary appears to be winding towards a finale only to pick up again and continue on. Scenes such as young Filipino women playing on the beach are inserted yet serve no purpose. The use of text highly detracts from the film as well, as the variety of different fonts, the occasional appearance of the director’s thoughts, and some flashy graphic work often serve to pull the audience out of the film. One of the interesting highlights of the film is the frequent recurrence of women’s stomachs which are symbolic of numerous attributes of the term ‘labor’, but oddly the text is never used to explain the director’s thoughts on this issue.

A recurring motif, a woman's stomach symbolises the diversity of the term 'labor'

A recurring motif, a woman’s stomach symbolises the diversity of the term ‘labor’


Red Maria is a highly interesting documentary, and director Kyung Soon deserves praise indeed for attempting to profile the subjugation of women under oppressive patriarchy in South-East Asia. Yet her desire to explore the concept of women’s labor proves to be far too broad in scope, resulting in a lack of character and debate development, as well as audience empathy. Yet it is the Filipino women who are the genuine highlight of the film, bringing incredible poignancy and inspiration to the discussion, and make Red Maria worth watching.



Red Maria (레드 마리아) screening and Q&A with Director Kyung Soon (경순)

Red Maria (레드 마리아)The Women’s Global Solidarity Network hosted a special event on Saturday the 8th of December at the Columban Mission Center in Seoul – a screening of documentary Red Maria (레드 마리아), as well as a Q&A session with director Kyung Soon (경순).

Red Maria, for the uninitiated, is a documentary addressing the plight of ‘labor’ amongst a selection of women in Korea, Japan, and The Philippines. Director Kyung Soon highlights how while the women in each respective country lead quite radically different lives, they are all subject to the same restrictions imposed upon them by patriarchy. Within The Philippines, women who are involved in the sex trade, families living in the slums, and elderly women who came forward about the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers, are interviewed. In Japan, homeless women, care-workers, and those unjustly fired are profiled. Within Korea, female protestors, immigrant wives, and sex workers lives are conveyed. Throughout the broad selection of female lives that are documented, director Kyung Soon establishes not only the incredibly difficult situations forced upon them by patriarchal culture, but also – and perhaps more importantly – how the women find the strength and courage to fight their battles and improve their lives.

Before the film began, the director told the audience she wanted to explore the idea of women’s labor and the labels ascribed to them, and asked those in attendance to consider these areas when watching. Interestingly, she also stated that Red Maria is not a typically ‘kind’ film in reference to the themes explored within and also the critiques of patriarchal culture.

Director Kyung Soon introduces 'Red Maria' (레드 마리아)

Director Kyung Soon introduces ‘Red Maria’ (레드 마리아)

The documentary was well received by the audience, and director Kyung Soon graciously answered questions from the audience following the screening. Her answers were very kindly translated by members of the Women’s Global Solidarity Network.

Question: Thank you for making such a moving film. What is the significance of the belly (a recurring motif within Red Maria)? Why not the hand, or something?

Director Kyung Soon: When I was young, I was actually very interested in bellies. In Korea, we have the public bath house culture, so when I was young there were not many separate shower rooms. We had a special day for going to the bath house, and when I went there I could see all the ranges of women in terms of age. From grandmothers to really young women, I could see them all naked. When I saw my grandmother’s and mother’s belly and body it was really fun for me to touch them because they were so soft and funny feeling. As I grow older, whenever I go to the public bath house and see young women’s bellies,  I feel very sad. When I was young bellies to me meant a warm place, but nowadays it’s like a shameful part of the body. So now you see in modern Korea, in terms of dieting, women are trying to get rid of their bellies. Even though it’s a part of their body, they actually try hard to get rid of it. So when I see that kind of culture, I feel very angry about it. I still enjoy going to the bath house, but now when I see women’s bellies I feel angry about them. In my opinion, the reason why a woman is a woman is because of her belly, and how a man becomes a man is because of the penis. But men don’t do anything else with their bellies, relatively speaking, compared to a woman. Actually I think a woman’s labor starts with their belly as it is connected to the uterus and vagina. For example when we have a period this is something we need to do, and also it’s a special thing to do, but actually no-one cares or talks about this as labor. Then having sex, and delivery babies and having abortions, these are all connected to the belly and women’s labor. But with this kind of labor women can’t get any benefits in terms of money. So of course people labor with their hands, but I think fundamentally we need to look at our bellies and what bellies actually mean for our lives and how they define labor.

Question: What was your reason for choosing those three countries in particular? What did you see as the underlying connection between Korea, Japan and The Philippines?

Director Kyung Soon: Before I made Red Maria my previous work was Shocking Family (쇼킹 패밀리). It was about criticizing the concept of the Korean family. So through this film I showed the women’s role within the family, within the patriarchal culture in Korea. And for that film I was invited to Japan a lot. Before that I didn’t have many chances to go to Japan, but because of this movie I was invited 7 or 6 times and through these kinds of events I met a lot of Japanese women. As I met a lot of Japanese women I was quite shocked to find the reality they faced in their own country. In Korea when we talk about the low birth rate, the Korean media always describes Japan as a very successful country that got over the low birth rate. But what I found out was that these Japanese women had the same problems that Korean women face. Also in Japan, even though it is a very wealthy country there is a really strong social order in Japan and that kind of culture makes women feel very suffocated. So when Japanese women go on strike or struggle in their work places or with their family they don’t have the spaces to make or build solidarity with other people. So when you see my film you can see Sato, the Japanese woman who was working hard, struggling and on strike by herself. What I actually saw in Japan was that they need some communication channels among people – among women – who are struggling. What I felt as I met these women, whether they live in wealthy countries or poor countries their problems are very similar and they share a lot of common things in terms of their struggles. Maybe there are some differences, for example if you are living in a wealthy country you might wear more expensive clothing, or eating better food, but  still I think the fundamental problems women share are very common. And the reason I chose the three countries are that you can see the poor countries and the wealthy countries at the same time based on the women’s labors. We can see their problems within the specific country’s cultural context, so that’s why I chose these three countries. And I also think women’s lives have not been dramatically changed except for the invention of the electronic cooker and washing machine. The reason that I chose The Philippines was because although there are a lot of migrant women who came to live in Korea, I actually found many of them were Filipino. So I didn’t really know much about The Philippines. But in 2007 I went to The Philippine and lived there for a year, and to learn their culture and study. From 2008 I started filming this film. And also when you are watching you can see these three countries share a similar history, for example how Korea was colonized and The Philippines was effected by the imperialism, and you can see the female victims of the war.

Director Kyung Soon answers questions from the audience

Director Kyung Soon answers questions from the audience

Question: First I’d like to thank you for the film, I really enjoyed it. One of things I found interesting was how it is difficult to gain self-realization through work. As a female laborer, I thought you showed the difficulties well how difficult it is to gain self-realization through labor. Because the work we can do, the work we want to do, is very limited. But at the same time, it might actually be a common problem for all the people who work in this world. So in that context, what do you think about this kind of problem?

Director Kyung Soon: As capitalism grows bigger and bigger, and the internet becomes really accessible don’t we share a lot of information together? But I think it’s very much marginalizing the actual problem. You can see all the incidents, events and access all the information easily. There are so many things of interest. Is this something you need to seriously consider or think about? For example, what does ‘liberal’ mean? What does the term mean to us? We rarely think about labor. When we look for the definition of ‘labor’ in the dictionary it is defined based on payment without really considering what labor really means. So when you think about labor in this way, you can look back and think about the labor that you were doing that didn’t involve getting paid. Then in this context, or this definition, we can’t enlarge the meaning of labor. So if labor is only based on payment, or the amount of payment, then if you earn a lot of money you might think that you reached the top of self-realization earlier than other people. But if you earn five grand a month or a grand a month, people still face the same difficulties. Because the person who earns five grand tries to pay off their mortgage debt, but the person who earns a grand a month have to pay their monthly bill for their house. So I actually think everyone is getting poorer in this society. I think we can’t just divide people like this. I think we are all connected. What I want to say is that self-realization can’t be measured based on the payment you receive from work. I think the answer that I want to show through the film is that we should make the world for the people who only earn a grand but that they are still able to gain their self-realization. The way each person lives seems very challenging within society but I think it’s a very fundamental question you need to ask yourselves. One thing that I want to add here is that in Korea we have a proverb that unemployed people can die due to overworking and stress, which means that even though they are unemployed they still have a lot of things to do. Which shows that being unemployed is only based on capitalism. So you don’t get any money, but you still do a lot of things. For example, people can volunteer. They don’t get paid to do that, but actually through volunteering they can gain self-realization. Therefore if we only look at labor in relation to payment or money, you can’t enlarge the meaning of the word ‘labor’ anymore. So this capitalist society drives the people not to ask this kind of question about labor, only to think about labor in relation to payment.

Thank you to Mik young Kim and the other members of the Women’s Global Solidarity Network for hosting the event, and to the Columban Mission Center for providing the venue.

Directors Interviews/Q&As