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The Korean home theaters are drum-rolling these days for a revolution in gender politics: it’s for the new work titled Life is Beautiful by Kim Soo-hyun, the best soap opera writer to have reigned in Korea for the last 30 some years. In the high-rating drama, one of the main characters is a homosexual man. However, he’s different from the majority of homosexual stereotypes that appear as feminine or obnoxious as in most Korean media; rather, he is a prudent doctor and an outstanding son. Life is Beautiful seems to be a superb indicator that points to how the Korean media is changing in dealing with the notion of homosexuality. Then, one wonders, where all the homosexuals that appear in Korean movies are.

Queer movies are still a strange entity in the Korean movie scene. Most of Korean movies were either just apathetic to the existence of homosexuals, or drew them as being twisted odd borderline identities like in Road Movie. Director Leesong He-Il, a gay man who came himself, has been persistently making queer films even in such sterile environment. He has been active as the front-running man in queer movie scene in Korea with his film Everyday Like a Sunday which was screened in The 1st Seoul Queer Film Festival in 1998, and also directed the first feature-length queer film No Regret in 2006. However, Leesong doesn’t create queer films that scream for political equality and homosexual rights; rather, he intensely depicts the life of homosexuals today in Korea, through catastrophic melodrama genre.

Sumin (Lee Young-hoon), the main character in No Regret lives his barren life day to day with hope, laboring in the factory during the day and working as a chauffeur at night. One day, Sumin’s life changes when he meets Jaemin (Lee Han), the son of the chairman of the factory where he works. Sumin and Jaemin start to arouse interest in each other, but their class keeps them separated. Revolting towards the company that fires temporary labor positions, Sumin quits and finds himself a job at a gay host bar in Seoul, and Jaemin goes out on a search for Sumin. Eventually they find each other and fall in love, but the world is not as beautiful: Aware of their son Jaemin’s sexual identity, his parents urge him to get married, leading the two men’s love into a great risk.

The most interesting fact is that No Regret boldly follows the cliché of hostess bars that took Korea by storm in 70s and 80s. Having left the factory, there isn’t much for Sumin to do but to sell himself and pleasure at a hostess bar, and the gay host bar episodes that were realistically presented to depict his hardship are quite shocking. Leesong He-Il doesn’t seem keen on creating sweet romantic queer movies to make the heterosexual audience feel comfortable. At a glance, the scene of two men making love in sunlight-filled roof-top house resembles a scene from Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together. However, No Regret is closer to a sharp morality play that digs at sexual identity and hierarchical structure, all under the appearance of a melodrama. Leesong non-hesitantly admitted that the film is a type of morality play and said that “Hierarchical movement starts from being self-aware of the hierarchy. Homosexual society is the same. I want to send the message that we shouldn’t be content by blaming reality, and live a more honest life.”

No Regret called 45,000 viewers upon its release, and re-wrote box office records in Korean indie film scene. Many women curious about homosexual culture contributed largely to the box office success of the film. The reason No Regret is so loved is not because the film is a queer film that talks about homosexuality in an uncomfortable viewpoint, but is a genuine queer melodrama, a confession created by a homosexual director. Leesong He-Il’s No Regret will be a marvelous starting point in the history book of Korean queer films in the future.

 

KIM Do-hoon, reporter for Cine21

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Posted by EYEBALL_Media Arts Webzine


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