I am More (모어, More) is as much a mission statement as it is a simple piece of biographical information in Lee Il-ha’s musical documentary following transgender drag artist More. Born in Korea but based in Japan since 2000, Lee’s previous documentaries focused on the position of Zainichi Koreans but with I am More he explores the position of minorities within Korea itself while providing a platform for More to express herself fluently through music and performance art.
More describes herself as having a love hate relationship with drag which she has been performing for over 20 years in the bars and clubs of Itaewon. She relates that she still has a gun in her heart and that going to perform is like going on duty while throwing shade on the Western customers at her bar and their $1 tips. Even so, drag was a liberating experience for her on arriving in the city in which attitudes towards gender norms were much stricter than they had been in the small town where she grew up even if they had not exactly been much warmer there. Embarking on her studies at Seoul University of the Arts, a fellow student punched her in the face and told her to lose her feminity while when forced to do military service she was briefly placed in a mental hospital.
More’s warmhearted and completely accepting mother claims that there was no bullying during More’s childhood and that nobody thought much of her atypical gender presentation, but More also reveals that she once tried to take her own life during high school but survived and in fact went straight to an exam to avoid getting in trouble for missing classes. Her teacher also recalls another student whom he describes as “effeminate” and apologises for the way they were treated by their classmates while More seems to have developed a friendship with one of the bullies who tormented her but also showed her kindness. He reflects on the various ways their perspective was “limited” by their small-town upbringing remembering how small he felt on going to the city and realising he was no longer at the top of the social hierarchy.
The situation may be very different than it was during More’s childhood, but the LGBTQ+ community still faces prejudice and discrimination from religious groups who are seen protesting pride events and harassing attendees while a patriotic song from the era of dictatorship singing of “our Korea” ironically plays in the background. More is in a longterm relationship with a Russian man, Zhenya, whose immigration status is precarious as he is stuck on a job seeker’s visa. Same sex marriage is not recognised in Korea meaning that he is unable to apply as a spouse and is in the midst of trying to gain Korean citizenship. Meanwhile despite having a PhD in chemistry he is currently unemployed and losing himself in the comparatively tranquil world of Pokémon Go where he says the monsters are kinder than people. Though they have been together a long time, some of it on and off as Zhenya later implies, Lee follows More as she introduces Zhenya to her parents who welcome him with open arms and make sure to invite him to all the major celebrations as More’s partner seeing as he obviously has no other family in Korea to spend them with.
Meanwhile, Lee spends much of the documentary focussing on More’s rehearsals for a show in New York celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall during which she develops a friendship with Hedwig and the Angry Inch star John Cameron Mitchell who later travels to Korea and remarks on how difficult it can be to be yourself in a conformist society where individuality can sometimes be read as selfishness. Hedwig in a sense brings things full circle with a reference back to More’s own Wig in a Box moment discovering drag in Itaewon while Lee is careful to give her her own space to express herself as she lip syncs to iconic pop songs and performs poetry and performance art in elaborate outfits at Seoul landmarks as if beckoning towards a new and more inclusive culture. A vibrant portrait of a queer artist who is absolutely herself I am More more than lives up to its name in its electric advocation for a world of love and joy.
Festival trailer (dialogue free)
Though the film’s subtitles refer to More as “he”, she has confirmed with festival organisers that she prefers feminine pronouns.
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