Under the authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee, Korean Cinema was subject to increasingly stringent censorship and film was seen as an important means of moral instruction. The central message behind Shim Wu-seob’s raucous comedy A Man and a Gisaeng (남자와 기생, Namjawa Gisaeng) is that a man should be faithful to his family and avoid the double betrayal represented by drinking in the company of women which fritters away financial security and endangers his relationship with his wife. Yet the film is also subversive despite the underlying conservative message in making a mockery of so-called “traditional” gender roles.

Indeed, the film’s very thesis is that men are weak and women are strong. The men visit who gisaeng appear to have done so to reaffirm their dominant masculinity through their financial power in essentially paying women to be subservient towards them. Yet the gisaeng themselves are fully in control of the game they are playing as one makes clear when she tells a drunken businessman off after he gets handsy with her. She reminds him that a gisaeng is a person too, not a doll to be played with, and when he doesn’t listen she gets up and leaves proving who it is that has the upper hand in this situation. All the businessman can do is splutter and threaten the otherwise mild-mannered male manager. 

The hero’s boss, Heo (Heo Jang-gang), is a henpecked husband who visits gisaeng as a means of escape from his domineering wife (Do Kum-bong) who punishes him like a child. He asks Tae-ho (Gu Bong-Seo) to resign after catching him sitting at his desk darning socks to earn extra money and though it might be perfectly reasonable to fire an employee for brazenly doing another job on company time, Heo mainly lets him go because of his unmanliness. Tae-ho is a fully domesticated man who does work traditionally regarded as “feminine” in taking in sewing and looking after all of the domestic tasks such as cooking and cleaning as a “maternal” figure to his younger sister Tae-suk (Kim Chung-ja) who is then depicted as “manly” in her mastery of martial arts. 

It quickly becomes clear that the “effeminate” man Tae-ho is the film’s strongest character and the only one largely in control of his circumstances. He agrees to become a gisaeng partly because he needs to earn money after being fired, but also he claims as a “joke” before committing himself to punishing men who neglect their duty to their families by shaming them into changing their behaviour as he largely does with Heo who, bizarrely, develops a fascination with Tae-ho’s gisaeng persona San-wol as she apparently reminds him of the first love he was prevented from marrying because of her family’s disapproval. 

The gender subversion is in essence the joke, but there are also constant hints that it might not be and Tae-ho’s female persona is also authentic, not least among them the music cues which are extremely ironic. For example, the melody of “Don’t Fence Me In” plays over Tae-ho at the house of gisaeng, as do the strains of “Nature Boy” which also hint at a validation of Tae-ho’s expression of femininity. Before being fired, Tae-ho tells Heo that he’s repressing himself and it isn’t good for him, and there is a (joking) suggestion in the final scenes that Heo’s attraction to San-wol is partly born of her seeming masculinity. He did indeed unwittingly appreciate a drag performance from Tae-ho’s queer-coded musician friend, after all.

It’s also possible to read Heo’s reunion with his wife as a new appreciation for her own “masculine” qualities in her capacity to dominate him even if the film simultaneously suggests that the role of a “good wife” is to offer “affection” to her husband and if the husband visits gisaeng it’s the wife’s fault for not giving it to him. Even so, what the film’s conclusion implies is closer to a rebalancing than might be expected in allowing Jeong-mi, the gisaeng with whom Tae-ho falls in love to counter any suggestion of queerness, to open her own shop as an independent woman pursuing a relationship with Tae-ho who is then a travelling salesmen selling cosmetics. Jeong-mi asks Tae-ho to give up “knitting” before they get married which would signal a remasculinisation, but Tae-suk, though dressing in a more feminine fashion to meet her in-laws, is not directly asked to give up Taekwondo and it seems that her fiancé appreciates her feistiness rather than seeking to soften it. Even Heo’s wife if seeming more cheerful has not given up control in their marriage despite her own drag experience in the gisaeng house yet their relationship is now considered “repaired”. “Traditional” gender roles have ostensibly been reaffirmed, Heo’s marriage is saved and both Tae-ho and his sister are about to marry, but they’ve also been subverted and redefined in unexpected ways. Some of this may only be possible because A Man and a Gisaeng is an absurd comedy of the kind Shim was known for, but it nevertheless hints at an underlying plea for greater social freedom in an authoritarian era. 

A Man and a Gisaeng screened as part of this year’s Queer East .

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