Born in 1961 in Incheon, Yim Soon-rye graduated from Hanyang University in 1985 with a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in Theater and Film. She received her master's degree in Film Studies from Paris 8 University in 1992 with a thesis titled "Study on Kenji Mizoguchi."
Upon her return to Korea in 1993, she worked as an assistant director on Yeo Kyun-dong's Out to the World. In 1994, she directed her first short film Promenade in the Rain, which won the Grand Prize and the Press Award at the 1st Seoul International Short Film Festival.
She made her feature film debut with Three Friends (1996), which explored Korean masculinity and marginalization through the lives of three young men who have difficulty adjusting to the social system. It won the NETPAC Award at the 6th Pusan International Film Festival.
Her second feature was Waikiki Brothers in 2001, a bittersweet drama about a struggling nightclub band that wanders from one small town to another for a gig. It was the opening film of the 2nd Jeonju International Film Festival. Despite low ticket sales, Waikiki Brothers drew critical acclaim, with film critic Shim Young-seop praising Yim's use of long takes as a manifestation of the director's deep love for her characters. Yim won Best Screenplay at the 9th Chunsa Film Art Awards and Best Director at the 21st Korean Association of Film Critics Awards in 2001, while Waikiki Brothers won Best Film at the 38th Baeksang Arts Awards in 2002. And with its cult following, the film was later adapted into the stage musical Go! Waikiki Brothers! in 2004.
Yim's follow-up was the documentary Keeping the Vision Alive: Women in Korean Filmmaking (2001), an homage to both pioneers such as Park Nam-ok and Hwang Hye-mi, and contemporary directors like Byun Young-joo and Jang Hee-sun. Through images and interviews, Yim's camera unobtrusively let the women filmmakers discuss their experiences, struggles and survival in the male-dominated, conservative and sexist Korean film industry.
In 2003, Yim was among six filmmakers who participated in If You Were Me, an omnibus funded by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) that deals with different human rights issues. Yim's short film The Weight of Her is a satirical take on female beauty and body image, as a high school girl feels pressured to undergo plastic surgery in order to get hired.
Yim then produced A Smile, the feature directorial debut of fellow female Korean director Park Kyung-hee, and later made a cameo appearance in Park's short film Under a Big Tree. She also appeared in Ryoo Seung-wan's 2006 short film Hey Man (which skewers Korean machismo), and was among the subjects of Hiroko Yamazaki's 2007 documentary Viva! Women Directors.
Seven years after Waikiki Brothers, Yim directed her third feature film Forever the Moment, titled in Korean "The Best Moment of Our Lives." Based on the true story of the South Korean women's national handball team that won the silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Yim struck a balance between genre conventions and her own arthouse style by combining the dynamism and fast pacing of a mainstream sports film with character beats of the female athletes experiencing discrimination and job insecurity in their field and divorce, debt, and infertility in their personal lives. With over 4 million tickets sold in 2008, the sports drama became a sleeper hit and Yim's most commercially successful film yet.
Yim received the Park Nam-ok Award for outstanding achievement (named after Korea's first female filmmaker) from the 10th International Women's Film's Festival in Seoul, and won Woman Filmmaker of the Year at the 9th Women in Film Korea Awards. Forever the Moment won Best Film at the 44th Baeksang Arts Awards and the 29th Blue Dragon Film Awards.
In 2009, Yim again collaborated with the NHRCK with her fourth feature Fly, Penguin. The film is composed of four segments which tackle issues such as a mother's obsession with her son's English education, the ostracism at work of an office employee because he's a vegetarian and doesn't drink alcohol, the estrangement of a man from his family whom he financially supports overseas, and divorce between a couple in their sixties.
Her fifth film Rolling Home with a Bull (2010) was adapted from Kim Do-yeon's novel about a failed poet who goes on a road trip across rural Korea with a recently widowed ex-girlfriend and his father's cow that he plans on selling. Yim said, "Although the novel is based on a Buddhist pilgrimage, I thought it could be developed into an unconventional love story."
In 2011, Yim, an animal rights activist, produced the omnibus film Sorry, Thanks (also known as Thank You and I'm Sorry), in which four directors explored the relationship between humans and their pets. In Yim's short film Cat's Kiss, a father is at odds with his daughter because of her propensity for collecting stray cats, until he finds himself growing to care for them.
Later that year, she directed a Korean dubbed version of the 2002 Japanese film Oriume, which depicts a family's struggle to cope with an elderly relative who is afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.
In 2012, Yim executive produced Lee Kwang-kuk's debut film Romance Joe, and appeared in Heo Chul's documentary Ari Ari the Korean Cinema.
Yim's next feature was South Bound (also known as Run to the South) in 2013. Adapted from Okuda Hideo's novel, the protagonist is a man with an outspoken nature and disdain for mainstream society who decides to relocate his family to a remote island off the south coast of Korea. But their dream of a happy and sustainable life free from governmental authority is ruined when they clash with a powerful politician who has plans of developing their island into a holiday resort.
The film received criticism from some quarters that opined it was overly politicized with its anti-establishment and anti-capitalist tone as well as its parallels to the Jeju Naval Base, but Yim said she "tried to deliver the story as joyfully as possible" with a light-hearted approach despite its weighty themes of individual freedom, national duty, and familial separation. She said further, "Our society is full of uncertainties and ferocious competition. "The South" here means an ideal land. Every one dreams of an ideal place, but only a few manage to fulfill their dream. The family in South Bound is willing to step ahead and achieve what they want by breaking away from social norms and traditions."
In 2014, Yim directed Whistle Blower, based on the real-life events surrounding Hwang Woo-suk, then a biotechnology professor at Seoul National University who gained international renown in 2004 after claiming that he had successfully carried out experiments cloning human embryonic stem cells. After a whistleblower anonymously tipped off a local investigative journalism program, it was revealed that Hwang's research had been fabricated and unethical, in one of the biggest scientific frauds in recent history.
In her fictionalized version, Yim said that one of the challenges was portraying the scientist as multidimensional, but that her focus was on the image of a journalist who rightfully battles for the truth, despite political pressure and public condemnation.Out to the World (1993) - assistant director
Promenade in the Rain (short film, 1994) - director, screenwriter, producer
Three Friends (1996) - director, screenwriter, producer
Waikiki Brothers (2001) - director, screenwriter
Keeping the Vision Alive: Women in Korean Filmmaking (documentary, 2001) - director
The Weight of Her (short film in If You Were Me, 2003) - director, screenwriter
A Smile (2003) - producer
Under a Big Tree (short film in Twentidentity, 2004) - cameo
Hey Man (short film in If You Were Me 2, 2006) - cameo
Viva! Women Directors (documentary, 2007) - as herself
Forever the Moment (2008) - director, script editor
Fly, Penguin (2009) - director, screenwriter
Rolling Home with a Bull (2010) - director, screenwriter
Cat's Kiss (short film in Sorry, Thanks) - director, screenwriter
Sorry, Thanks (2011) - producer
Oriume (2011) - director of Korean dubbed version
Romance Joe (2012) - executive producer
Ari Ari the Korean Cinema (documentary, 2012) - as herself
South Bound (2013) - director
Whistle Blower (2014) - director
Little Forest (2018) - director
2001 9th Chunsa Film Art Awards: Best Screenplay (Waikiki Brothers)
2001 21st Korean Association of Film Critics Awards: Best Director (Waikiki Brothers)
2008 9th Busan Film Critics Awards: Special Jury Prize (Forever the Moment)
2008 10th International Women's Film's Festival in Seoul: Park Nam-ok Award
2008 9th Women in Film Korea Awards: Woman Filmmaker of the Year (Forever the Moment)
2008 Korea Green Foundation: 100 People Who Light Up the World
2009 18th Buil Film Awards: Yu Hyun-mok Film Arts Award