It was not so long ago that writing an article on queer cinema in Korea was a real struggle, for want of source material. Adam Hartzell does an excellent job in his 2002 Film Journal article Queer Pal for the Straight Gal, referencing films such as Wanee and Junah, Bungee Jump, Memento Mori and others. In general, Hartzell found that Korean films of the time dealt with gay subject matter either obliquely or by way of stereotype, the exceptions being Road Movie – where the gay character has to commit suicide – and possibly the most direct treatment of the issue, Wanee and Junah:
This Gay relationship is integrated into the film fully as common place. It is not seen as a deviation but as another valid expression of ourselves. It’s as everyday in this segment of Korean society as kimchi.
But Wanee was very much the exception that proved the rule.
Ten years on, we get a trilogy of films which deal with male desire in a full-on way. Leesong Hee-il presents intimate portraits of three couples who in different ways have try to suppress their desire. In the films, queerness is not exactly mainstream, but nevertheless embraced as something completely normal. Leesong came to public attention with No Regret (후회하지 않아, 2006), which claimed the title of Korea’s first real gay feature. (You can read Adam Hartzell’s review of it on Koreanfilm.org).
In White Night, which was inspired by a real-life case of a homophobic street assault, an airline crew member returns to Seoul after a long absence, and seeks the company of a stranger for a one-night stand. Apart from the beauty of the cinematography – the camera particularly revels in framing the characters in the foreground against a kaleidoscope of out-of-focus lights in the background, like the moon reflecting off the surface of the sea – we have the tension of the will-they-won’t-they aspects of their relationship as the night goes on, as we also follow the visitor’s search for resolution to put behind him the traumatic event of several years previously.
White Night, at 75′, is the longest film in the trilogy. The other two combined clock in at 82′.
Suddenly Last Summer is the story of a teacher trying to resist the attentions of one of his pupils. Torn between his feelings and his sense of duty as a teacher he tries to suppress his desire for the boy who is 15 years his junior, while the boy, who claims to have noticed the teacher trying to catch his eye in class, sticks to him like a leach in order to get what he wants. As with White Night, as we follow the couple through the backstreets of Seoul and on the Han River, we are drawn along by the building relationship and the will-they-won’t-they question.
In Going South we meet two men who met and found physical comfort with each other while on National Service. They now struggle to make sense of their experiences, with one insisting there was more meaning in their relationship than the other will admit.
In all three films, there is a poetry in the delicate portrayal of human emotion, and above all a feeling that these feelings are entirely normal. Whatever the gender of each half of the couple, what is important is the genuineness and naturalness of the emotions, and the trilogy leaves the viewer with an uplifting sense of fulfillment.
The trilogy screened as part of the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival in March 2013.
Leesong Hee-il (이송희일): White Night (백야, 2012), Going South (남쪽으로 간다, 2012), Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기, 2012)