Another chance to see Oh Suyeon’s Blind Alley, along with Leesong Hee-il’s first short and more: this evening should be good.
Love Without Boundaries: Shorts Night
Birkbeck Cinema, Thursday 25 July 2019 6:30 pm | Book here
While homosexuality in South Korea is not illegal – outside of specific regulations relating to the military – same sex love is not condoned by South Korea’s largely conservative society. Same sex couples cannot marry or adopt children. In addition there is no specific protection against discrimination in the workplace for members of the LGBTI community. In fact for some, homosexuality is still viewed as a disability and/or mental disorder. It is no surprise therefore that members of the LGBTI community see themselves as i-ban-e or second class citizens (Tal, SCMP, 2018). In Korean TV dramas, love is restricted to the heterosexual couple, while in KPOP queer love is celebrated as a performance rather than a reality. The fact that amongst the hundreds of idols in the KPOP industry only one, Holland, is openly gay, further demonstrates the rigid contours of South Korean society. And it is only against this background that the importance of representations of queer love in South Korean cinema can be understood.
Representation we know ‘matters’ because it is important for people to see themselves within the cinematic frame: absence from the frame echoes the reality of life at the margins of society. The five films in this strand of ‘Love Without Boundaries’ situate queer love at the centre rather than at the margins of the frame. The earliest short, Sugar Hill (2000) is by one of the most famous openly gay directors, Leesong Hee-il. Here the focus is on the relationship between two men, Kim and Lee, and the lengths they go to in order to remain together. This involves Lee marrying Kim’s sister. However things do not go smoothly and the marriage is just the beginning rather than the end of their troubles. Leesong Hee-il’s ground-breaking feature film, No Regret (2009) – an insightful and at times brutal look at gay love – is being shown as part of the main feature programme.
Another film from the same time period, A Space Man, is one of the four chapters in Yellow Hair 2 (Kim Yoo-min, 2001). This chapter looks at the love between J, who is a transsexual and M, a relationship which begins when M sees J singing in a bar in Thailand. M arranges to introduce J to his parents, who discover J’s status beforehand and acceptance and tolerance prove to be in short supply.
Just Friends? (Kim-jho Kwang-soo, 2009), focuses on two young men, Min-soo and Seok-i, coming out about their sexual identities. The film asks whether the love between a mother and son, or same sex love is more powerful than the need to abide by Confucian family values.
The remaining two more contemporary films explore female same sex relationships. First Love (2016, Kang Ji-sook) deals with a forty year relationship between two women, one that is first forged during their school years. The focus of A Blind Alley (Oh Suyeon, 2017) is on the sexual awakening of two best friends, Moonyoung and Eunjae, whose relationship is tested when Moonyoung discloses her true feelings.
These five films offer a kaleidoscope of non-normative sexual identities, providing a lens through which difference is celebrated, sexuality is interrogated and the humanity of those under inspection is verified. Being able to love openly is something that many of us take for granted. We don’t have to consider the implications of gestures of affection in public or whether our families will disown us because of who we choose to love. These short films explore and expose the boundaries which same-sex or non-traditional love encounters, the limits of which define a society’s conception of the normative and the human. In Gender Trouble (1999) Judith Butler points to the violence of gender norms within the heterosexual paradigm which restricts desire and defines deviancy. She suggests that showing how power works in and through bodies can be seen as transformative, if not necessarily inherently subversive. In these short films, filmmakers reveal how power operates in South Korean society to marginalise those who desire differently. By offering vignettes of the lives of couples whose love situates them outside of societal boundaries, filmmakers allow the possibility of change and transformation. It might take time, but such films have an important role to play in preparing society for such transformation, as well as giving members of the LGBTI community figures to identify or empathize with.
Dr Colette Balmain (Senior Lecturer in Film and Media at Kingston University)
First Love (깊고 오랜 사랑)
Director: Kang Ji-Sook (2016, 28 mins)
Cast: Seo Woo-Rim, Jeong Haeng-Sim
Written and directed by a young female filmmaker, this beautifully acted short film is a heartbreaking tale of the devastating impact of illness and death on loving couple Young-hee and Sun-jung. These two women, who have loved each other for forty years, face extreme prejudice and discrimination when Sun-jung is diagnosed with lung cancer, revealing the desperate need for legal recognition for same sex couples.
Sugar Hill (슈가힐)
Director: Leesong Hee-Il (2000, 23 mins)
Cast: Park Jae-Hyun, Jin Kyung, Byun Jung-Joo
The film is based on the true story of Kim and Lee, two men who have fallen in love. In a desperate attempt not to lose Lee, who is under pressure to get married, Kim, after much agony, introduces Lee to his unmarried sister as a prospective husband. With great tenderness toward his characters and a claustrophobic atmosphere, Leesong Hee-il explores, in his first short film, the consequences of the societal pressure placed on homosexual men in Korea.
A Blind Alley (골목길)
Director: Oh Suyeon (2017, 27 mins)
Cast: Oh Woori, Lee Haeun
The intense relationship between two best friends Moonjoung and Eunjae is tested when Moonjoung’s behaviour suddenly becomes out of character, due to an incident she can’t bring herself to reveal. At their school, rumours begin to circulate that one of the students is a lesbian. Moonjoung tentatively broaches the subject of her own sexual identity to Eunjae and together they must recalibrate their friendship.
A Space Man / (The second chapter from Yellow Hair 2 / 노랑머리 2)
Director: Kim Yoo-Min (2001, 17 mins)
Cast: Harisu, Yun Chan, Shin Yi
A Space Man is the second chapter of the feature Yellow Hair 2, which explores eroticism and complex relationships through a fragmented narrative. Famously, Korea’s first transgender entertainer Harisu made her film debut here as “J”, whose identity is put into question by the many characters who do not expect her unabashed strength to show.
Just Friends? (친구사이?)
Director: Kim-Jho Kwang-Soo (2009, 30 mins)
Cast: Yeon Woo-Jin, Lee Je-Hoon
The second in a trilogy of gay short films drawn from director Kim-jho Kwang-soo’s own experiences, Just Friends depicts the relationship between Min-soo, a young man in the midst of his compulsory military service, and his lover Seok-i (played by star-to-be Lee Je-hoon (Bleak Night, I Can Speak) in his acting debut), and the strain caused by the discovery of their more-than-friendly relations by Min-soo’s devoutly religious mother. Director Kim-jho deftly utilises both camp musical sequences and a moving, naturalistic portrayal of both characters, while exploring the short-sightedness of Korean institutions and the discrimination faced by gay men in love in Korean society.