Korean Queer Cinema (2013)

May 31, 2017 | Autor: Gary Needham | Categoria: Korean cinema, South Korean Cinema, Queer Cinema
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Directory of World Cinema

In the last ten years there have been several gestures towards establishing a Korean Queer Cinema, one that accounts for homosexual themes in mainstream cinema, the short films of gay and lesbian festivals, a relaxation in film censorship, a trend in the homo-eroticization of male stars, and an emerging public awareness of the existence of queer Koreans. The Korean screen in particular seems to be awash with homosexuality yet whether ‘Korean Queer Cinema’ exists as a consolidated history is subject to much debate and is, rather, just beginning to emerge as an identifiable genre. Not that long ago, in a ground-breaking article in a queer Asian cinema collection, Jooran Lee broached the concept of a Korean Queer Cinema both in retrospectively identifying gay and lesbian themes in the history of Korean cinema in films such as Hwabun/The Pollen of Flowers (Ha Kil-jong, 1972) and Jangsa-ui kkum/Dreams of the Strong (Shin Seung Soo, 1985) and in imagining a future in which we would see the development of an identifiable rather than sublimated queer Korean cinema.1 Through the gradual relaxation of censorship of sexually-explicit material – although it should be noted that Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together (Hong Kong: 1997) was banned in Korea and gay websites have come under attack – there now exists a handful of feature-length productions and an exciting and burgeoning short-film circuit that is expressively queer. The context for these shorts is predominately film festivals, particularly the triumvirate of Queer, Human Rights, and Women’s’ film festivals that occur annually. However, I would suggest that the contemporary context of mainstream cinema, the one most frequently used to talk about a ‘Korean queer cinema’, is still one of fantasy rather than reality. In these terms, ‘Korean queer cinema’ is a genre which is still emerging and negotiating its status as queer, like the spectre of Yeogo goedam II/Memento Mori, (Kim Tae-Yong & Kyu-dong Min, 1999) it haunts Korean cinema and anticipates in its wake a wider political and cultural shift of understanding, acceptance, and progress. There are numerous and significant films appearing year after year that seem to qualify themselves as queer texts from Beonjijeompeureul hada/Bungee Jumping of Their Own (Kim Dae-Seung, 2001), Wang-ui namja/The King and The Clown (Lee Jun-Ik, 2005), to Hellowoo Maireobeu/Hello My Love (Kim Aaron, 2009) but this overlooks on the one hand films that are properly queer from a politics of production and reception (not many), and, on the other, films engaging with queer identities and being made by queer film-makers as in Left image: Caption needed

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the case of Huhwihaji anha/No Regret (Lee Song Hee-Il, 2006). There are a significant number of films in which homosexuality is a major plot strand, Jeoseuteu Peurenjeu/Just Friends (Ahn Cheol-Ho, 2009) and/or representational, Antique (Min Kyu-Dong, 2009), sometimes subsumed by genre (horror in the case of Memento Mori), or actually entirely sub-textual, barely there for most audiences (like the unspoken love in The Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood, 2005). A common outside perception of queer cinema often assumes that visibility equals progress, that cinema and politics neatly mirror one another, but by and large the majority of homosexual representations in Korean cinema, of which there are many, are just that, representations, meaning that they do not necessarily engage with homosexuality as a political and cultural identity or assume a queer reception practice. However, that is not to say that at this stage any visibility is good visibility. Acts of representation, of seeing oneself onscreen, is a starting point for a queer cinema; that often means that many of the films are contradictory, trying to work things out, finding a mode of expression and a politics and, by definition, seemingly uneven and inchoate when compared to their global cousins. Korean queer cinema is very much a movement in progress and it demands our patience and sensitivity. A particular contradiction that needs attention is that many of the commercially-orientated films are inclined to make sense of male homosexuality through a tension that often filters the experience of it through female protagonists and their viewpoints while, at the same time, attempting to awkwardly articulate queer desire and experience. Women are often the means through which ‘the secret’ or ‘experience’ of homosexuality comes to be known; it is handled in a way that problematically denies the gay protagonist his (always his) voice. Although this may not be interpreted in a negative light since it is seems to point out the silences and avoidances and the need to speak about homosexuality in Korean society. An example of the way in which such tensions can be worked out is demonstrated by the short film Yeopseo/The Postcard (Kim Jun-pyo, 2007). The Postcard’s young gay man tries to strike up a relationship with a postman by writing postcards to himself that will be delivered by the postman in which he declares his love for the man in the uniform. His postcards bear no name, only an address that points towards being an act of secrecy that is carried over into the silence that marks both the film’s gay protagonists. These postcards and what is written on them is mediated through the two female post office clerks who assume the man is writing to one of them; in other words, they would never assume or think of homosexuality as a possibility – it just does not exist. The film does not end with a consummation of the two men but with them sitting in a public bath back to back as a visual rendering of their homo-ness and separation and one that mirrors each other’s inability to speak and articulate desire. Like Korean queer cinema itself, the ending hints at a beginning rather than something fully realized. It is a film about silence, shyness, reluctance, and secrecy. It is an obvious sign of the progress yet to be made. I do not want to deny the existence of a more fully-fledged Korean Queer Cinema but it is important not to overstate the fact based on naive assumptions related to representational quantities in mainstream cinema. The King and The Clown does not readily translate into political progress for Korean queers. The relationship between sexuality and cinema is not necessarily reflected in the broader context of homosexuality in Korean society, which, by reports from LGBT organizations, is getting better but still has a long way to go. There are countless stories of homophobia since there is no recognition, rights, or legal protection for queers, which makes for a difficult and depressing situation; LGBT people are often referred to as iban or second-class citizens. National and institutional homophobia is most clearly demonstrated when celebrities and stars make the brave leap to come out. In 2008 the actor and model Kim Ji-hoo came out on television, in an LGBT-themed show called Coming Out (2007) and, following this,

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he was subsequently the target of homophobia: he was dropped from his modelling agency, and sacked from his television programmes. His existence was censured and he committed suicide later that year. However, it would seem that progress is being made in small steps and Korean film, both independent and mainstream, as well as television, will have an important role to play in how both Korean queers and the wider public come to terms with increased visibility and the demand for tolerance, recognition, and equality. Films about homosexuality do not necessarily make queer films and the term queer itself all too easily becomes empty of meaning, depoliticized and deconcontexualized from its original intention. Queer began as an Anglo-American political reclamation of a homophobic word that became an important identity and critical tool for both activism and theory. However, by calling the right Korean films queer carries an explicit criticism of the widely-held assumption of queer being most commonly white, Western, and male and, as such, is useful in maintaining queer’s intention as an anti-essentialist manoeuvre. Queer films should be engaged on different levels in relation to practices of production and reception that do speak meaningfully to queer Koreans through an engagement with desires, identities, politics, and histories. In the current context this has mostly taken place in the short-film productions, for example, My Father’s Song (Lee Ji-sun, 2002), Dongbaek Ggot/Drifting Island (So Joon-Moon, 2005), La Traviata (Lee Song Hee-Il, 2005), Mogyok/The Bath (Lee Mi-rang, 2007), You Used to Smile That Way (Sun Park, 2009), and also evident in the documentary productions Goyangideul/Cats (Kim Jee-hyun, 2008), 3xFTM (Kim Il-rhan, 2008), and Jong-ro-eui Gi-jeok/Miracle on Jongno Street (Lee Hyuk-sang, 2010). In the context of ‘Korean Queer Cinema’ as a debate, there are two issues that currently need addressing – the problem of romantic comedy and the problem of mainstream reception’s avoidance of homosexuality in queerly-themed film. The first hindrance is that homosexuality and homoeroticism, which is always male, is most frequently an aspect of Korean romantic comedy in which the homosexuality is clearly evacuated of any progressive elements. Hello My Love, a film more balanced in its approach than others, is still typical through the common set-up in which there is a ménage a trois between two boys and a central female protagonist where there is rivalry for the affections of one of the male leads. Even films outside the romantic genre, for example Rodeu-mubi/Road Movie (Kim In-Shik, 2002), often held up as a groundbreaking queer Korean film, rarely conceive of male-male relations without recourse to a love triangle in which a female protagonist filters the experience for the audience and offers the possibility of something not quite fully gay. This scenario recalls some of the earlier debates in Asian queer cinema around Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1993). The contextualization of homosexuality and homoromanticism in Korean romantic comedy also assumes a female audience, which suggests that matters of homosexuality belong to the domain of female reception and female genres. While it is unfair to define the rom-com’s sassiness as simply ‘girly’, it is precisely a feminization that contours the representation of gay characters through the ‘cute boy’ lens of passive spectacle derived from the Japanese yaoi ‘boys in love’ milieu. The Korean live adaptation of Sayangkoldong Yangkwajajeom Aentikeu/Antique Bakery (Min Kyu-Dong, 2008) is an obvious contender here, set in the context of a patisserie sublimating sex for choux pastry, and satiating the desires of Antique’s female customers and those of its female audience. Antique manages to accommodate queer spaces such as the disco and deal with homophobia and closetedness (in a light-hearted way) but, overall, the feminization and the French-ness associated with cake-making render homosexuality safe and knowable as something feminized and European. The problem here is not the feminization of gay men, since that is an important aspect of queer culture’s gendered dissonance and challenge to effeminophobia, but, rather, that it becomes the main, and sometimes only, signifier of homosexuality in mainstream Korean cinema.

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Critical reception is the second problematic issue. In an issue of the KOFIC publication Korean Film Observatory2 there is coverage of three queer or possibly queer films which are Dasepo sonyo/Dasepo Naughty Girls (Lee Je-Yong) – a webcomic adaptation from 2006; No Regret (a queer indie); and Cheonhajangsa Madonna/Like a Virgin (Lee Hae-Jun, Lee Hae-Young) – a comedy that may or may not be about a transgender Madonna fan from 2007. In Darcy Paquet’s coverage of Dasepo Naughty Girls there is no mention of the gay content or fluid sexualities, merely allusions to an unspecified diversity and transgression. The pages devoted to the comedy Like a Virgin are no better. In that film, a young overweight boy who loves Madonna (need one say more) feels that he is a girl trapped in a boy’s body. The film is not addressed as one concerning gender identity and sexuality but rather concentrates on issues surrounding class and the failure of an unemployed father. The emphasis here orientates the film towards an examination of class politics, which is subterfuge, but it strikes at a real problem beyond cinema in that, culturally, there is still difficulty in seeing Korean homosexuality as something that actually exists. In these two articles there is no mention of homosexuality. However, there is no way of denying the upfront nature of homosexuality in Leesong He-il’s No Regret and, in a contradictory fashion, the write-up presents both a regressive position (‘how weak homosexuals can become feminized’) and a progressive one (‘the serious issues explored in the film’). But, like Hello, My Love, this queer film is understood through its relation to another female genre, the hostess melodramas of the 1970s, rather than seeing it as a new type of Korean cinema, that is, a Korean Queer Cinema.

Gary Needham Notes 1. Jooran Lee (2000) ‘Remembered Branches: Towards a Future of Korean Homosexual Film’ in Andrew Grossman Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the Shade. Binghampton: Hawthorn Press, pp.273-282. 2. Korean Film Observatory No.21, 2007.

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