The presence of an intersex person presents an existential threat to a fiercely patriarchal social order in Song Kyung-shik’s intense feudal-era drama, Sa Bangji (사방지). Inspired by the life of a historical figure who was exiled from mainstream society because of their gender identity, the film finds its protagonist continually exploited as a fetishised object of desire challenging the sexual repression of a society in which women were required to display no sexuality.
The monks at the temple where Sa Bangji (Lee Hye-young) was raised advise them that they cannot live in the secular world and with good reason, as the hostility with which they are later greeted makes clear. On looking at them, a shamaness immediately has a vision of a snail, which is as she later explains a “hermaphrodite” creature, and immediately seems to have grasped their secret. The shamaness explodes with rage and insists the noble house by whom Sa Bangji has reluctantly been taken in as a maid should expel them at once for they will only bring misfortune and potentially death. They are later told that they are abomination born from their parents’ bad karma and made to pay the price for it with only the kind Buddhist monk reminding Sa Bangji that there will always be a place at the temple for them and that bad karma can always be overcome with goodness and light.
Sa Bangji hadn’t wanted to leave the temple because they longed to see the world beyond it, only that even in this comparatively safe space they felt a burden while again ironically caught between two worlds neither nun nor layman. Though they present as a woman, Sa Bangji has male genitalia and is at pains to keep their true nature hidden. When the widow Lee So-sa (Bang Hee) encounters Sa Bangji at the temple, she too is drawn to their uncanniness and determines to “rescue” them from a monastic existence by taking them back to her home as a maid. Once there, she begins on what can only be described as a campaign of sexual harassment in which she continually makes advances to Sa Bangji who repeatedly turns them down because they are afraid of what will happen once their gender atypicality is exposed. So-sa in fact forces it out of them by accusing Sa Bangji of stealing a precious ring as a pretext for strip searching them.
This ring is later exchanged as a token of their love once they have indeed become intimate and discovered in each other romantic fulfilment. Yet the ring also echoes the constraint which surrounds each of them by virtue of not being male in feudal society. “How dare you make decisions all by yourself” So-sa is told when she arrives home to the estate of her husband’s family with Sa Bangji in tow, even as a noblewoman unable to exercise much agency and dependent on relatives who blame her for her late husband’s death. Her chief oppressor is of course her mother-in-law who, as an older woman, has more power, though no more freedom, and uses it to control other women. So-sa keeps Sa Bangji captive as a kind of plaything and accidental sex slave, in part to ensure their identity is not revealed, but they do seem to have found a transgressive freedom in the genuine connection between them which is brokered by Sa Bangji’s otherness.
It is Sa Bangji’s hidden “masculinity” that both gives them power and makes them vulnerable. So-sa eventually betrays them, unable to defy the feudal order to protect the person she loves, and Sa Bangji finds themselves once again imprisoned this time by the shamaness who pimps them out to other sexually frustrated women who are not permitted to express sexual desire such as widows and concubines as part of what she originally claims is a plot of revenge against oppressive nobility who forced her shaman husband to father a noble woman’s child and then killed him to keep the secret.
Sa Bangji too wants revenge and eventually insists that they are going to show the word the beauty of their body, only for that body to be repeatedly commodified and seen as little more alive than the dildo So-sa shockingly removes from a locked chest in order to ease her frustrated desires as a youthful widow. They are called a “freak”, and eventually come to see themselves as a “monster”, “neither male nor female” and therefore existing outside of the tightly ordered patriarchal feudal society which is what makes them such a threat. In the end, not even the sacred land of the temple is safe from secular intrigue. Sa Bangji makes a drastic decision in an attempt to free themselves from gender-based oppression but it isn’t enough to overcome the world’s cruelty and leaves them once again caught between two worlds, unable to overcome the fragile masculinity of the patriarchal feudal order.
Sa Bangji screens at Genesis 29th April as part of this year’s Queer East