'Ajoomma' shows middle-aged women can be stars, too

“Ajoomma,” which revolves around a Singaporean middle-aged woman’s adventure in Korea, was invited to screen at the New Currents section of this year’s Busan International Film Festival. [BIFF]

BUSAN — The global popularity of K-content could be vividly seen through the Singaporean-Korean film “Ajoomma,” which revolves around a middle-aged Singaporean woman who goes on a journey of self-discovery to Korea.

The feature film by director He Shuming was invited to debut at the New Currents section of this year’s Busan International Film Festival (BIFF). The New Currents section screens the first or second feature films of up-and-coming Asian directors.

“Ajoomma,” traditionally spelt ajumma which translates to middle-aged woman in Korean, centers around a Singaporean widow who is obsessed with Korean drama series and songs. Leaving behind an awkward relationship with her adult son, her adventure begins as she impulsively decides to embark on a tour to Korea by herself.

About 80 percent of the film’s narrative is set in Korea, with Korean actors Kang Hyung-seok and Jung Dong-hwan also appearing in lead roles alongside the protagonist, portrayed by Singaporean actor Hong Huifang. The film also constitutes of three languages — Mandarin, Korean and English — as the people attempt to communicate with one another.

Actor Yeo Jin-goo also makes special appearances throughout the film as a character from a Korean drama series that the protagonist could just gobble up.

From left, director He Shuming, actors Hong Huifang and Kang Hyung-seok pose for a photo at a local press event at the Busan Visual Industry Center on Friday. [BIFF]

According to Shuming, the film was inspired after a real-life model: none other than his own mother.

“My mother is a huge, huge fan of Korean dramas,” Shuming said at a local press event in the Busan Visual Industry Center on Friday. “At some point when I was living abroad, my mom would watch three to four Korean dramas at the same time. So when we’d talk on the phone, she’s talking about some character from the drama.

In her trip, the woman has an epiphany that inspires her to lead her own life for herself in “Ajoomma.” [BIFF]

“For my first feature film, it felt very natural for me [to make one based] around a mother figure,” he continued. “As a filmmaker, I look to my mother as a source of inspiration. She’s a fantastic storyteller — in a way, that helped me to kind of think about stories. The message that I wanted to convey with the film was really about, I think, not just the relationship between the mother and her child, but also about a new perspective into our parents. We sometimes forget that they have their lives, friends, an identity beyond being a mother. So I often think about my own relationship with her and what kind of life she wanted to have if she didn’t have to devote her entire life to us, to her children. So I think it was really that message of hope for anyone out there, for women to take the center stage and see in films that the middle-aged woman could be a lead character.”

The protagonist, only known as auntie, travels to Korea on a tour but becomes separated from the group. As she goes along on her journey and meets a kind helper named Jung-su, a security guard at an apartment complex, and the tour guide Kwon-woo, she has an epiphany to start living her own life — no longer as a wife or a mother, but as herself, for herself.

Shuming’s message is reflected through his choice of music as well. The director chose the 2009 song “Women’s Generation,” a collaborative song between R&B trio SeeYa, girl group T-ara and ballad duo Davichi, which encourages women to step up to lead independent lives.

“It’s a very empowering song for women, so I thought it was very fitting to open and close the film,” he said. “In Singapore, the translated lyrics only come out at the end of the film, so if you don’t understand Korean, then you’ll get it at the end and feel sense of hope for [the protagonist].”

The protagonist meets Jung-su, a security guard at an apartment complex who helps her track down her tour group in “Ajoomma.” Jung-su is portrayed by Jung Dong-hwan. [BIFF]

The director also explained the film’s English title.

“I think as the [Hallyu] Korean wave spread all over the world, you can talk to anyone who knows Korean content [and they'll] know what ajumma means,” he said. “It’s just very clear to me that should be title and nothing else.

“In Singapore, our version of ajumma is what we call aunties. I think ajumma and auntie have the same [negative] connotation. In Singapore, when you call someone auntie, it may seem rude. [But] when you take ownership of it, to say ‘I’m an ajumma,’ there’s something quite empowering about it. I wanted to have that and not translate it to anything else.”

The film also leaves a meaningful mark as the first Singapore-Korean co-production. Producer Anthony Chen credited Korean producer Lee Joon-han of local production company The Whale Company to being able to bring the film to screen.

“It’s been six and a half years since we started working on the project, from December 2015,” Chen said. “My discovery [through working in ‘Ajoomma’] is that Korean film budgets are usually much bigger, so they would think that this film is too small [to produce]. The other thing is [even among] most Korean productions that are established, it’s hard to find an English-speaking person to form a work relationship. […] I’m very proud to say that even though the budget was low, this is actually the first Singapore-Korea co-production ever. And it’s actually the first-ever Southeast Asian film to get funding from the Korean Film Council. It’s been quite wonderful how things came together, but we had a tight budget and Korea is not a cheap country. [laughs] There was a lot of faith and belief in this project, and six years later, we’re here, premiering the film in Busan. I cannot imagine a better place to premiere the film.”