A newly appointed judge struggles against societal nonsense in this significant legal drama.
“Maybe becoming a housewife is the happiest way to live for a woman.”
In 1954, Hwang Yun-suk was appointed as South Korea’s first female judge, almost a decade before the United Kingdom did. Her appointment was revolutionary, although short-lived: she was tragically found dead in 1961 – some people believe she was killed by relatives or her husband. The world of women entering positions where they risk gaining higher status than men is a risky one, and continues to be to this day, which is why Hong Eun-won’s 1962 film is so important.
A Woman Judge isn’t exactly the movie I thought it was going to be with our heroine Jin-suk becoming the titular Woman Judge within the first twenty minutes. In fact, this isn’t a story about the trials (no pun intended) leading up to the position, but rather the fallout that came after. That there is any fallout at all might seem insane in this day – but it’s a reality of society that should be addressed and acknowledged, and the result should be admired. After all, Jin-suk is a character who is faced with countless issues, but persists and wins the day, even when everyone seems dead-set against her.
The version of the film I watched – retrieved by the Korean Film Archive – was pretty badly damaged, and missing a few chunks of film. It’s hard to tell how the story would have benefited from these extra scenes as there are definitely moments that feel out of nowhere and it’s hard to judge (again no pun intended) whether this was always the case or if it’s simply a victim of time. Because of this, the movie itself is scattershot in a lot of places and the story sort of just happens, but it’s at least simple enough that it remains easily comprehensible now.
So let’s ignore that for the time being and focus on it on a critical level. Helmed by one of Korea’s first female directors the film doesn’t shy from what it’s trying to say, opting to stand proudly and command its message. And in that regard, A Woman Judge is a great female-led drama which showcases a number of well-defined and complex women – something of a rarity at the time and probably even today; that both the BFI and Little White Lies are publishing articles on the emergence of female directors today says a lot.
From Jin-suk’s level-headedness, the housemaid’s sense of humour and the sister-in-law’s scheming, it’s refreshing to see such an array of women represented. They’re heroic at times, and villainous in others. This comes at the cost of the male characters, who are something of a bunch of caricatures themselves, but it’s not hard to see that that was the entire point. One can easily visualise Hong Eun-won’s struggles in a male-dominated industry – and that this is her only credit on IMDb must be indicative of something.
A Woman Judge is an important piece of Korean film history and the way it shows society’s reaction to a woman having the audacity to reach a higher social standing than her male peers is worthy of discussion. As a story it’s all over the place: it jumps from family slice-of-life to whodunnit to legal drama over the course of 85 minutes. Its poor condition means we’ll never see it in its entirety, but for what remains we can overlook its flaws for what it stands for, and its lasting legacy.
Verdict: A brave piece of cinema, A Woman Judge tells an important story that’s worth seeing
Overall entertainment: 6.5/10
Violence: Just some murder
Sex: I mean, they don’t even kiss in this.
Camerawork: Many more Dutch angles in this than I’d imagine
Bechdel test: Passed, I’d say
Juice plot: Boy was that convoluted
A Woman Judge (1962)
Also known as: 여판사
Director: Hong Eun-won
Writer: Hong Eun-won (probably)
Jeong-suk Moon – Jin-suk