Herstory (허스토리, Min Kyu-dong, 2018)

When Kim Hak-sun held a press conference and offered her testimony as a former comfort woman following a statement in the Japanese Diet in which the government rejected any responsibility for wartime sexual slavery, it brought an issue into the public consciousness that many had been unwilling to reckon with. One of many films focussing on the same subject released in the last few years, Min Kyu-dong’s Herstory (허스토리) dramatises the events of the Shimonoseki Trials which took place between 1992 and 1998 and resulted in the first admission from the Japanese authorities that the basic human rights of women had been breached but nevertheless found it not incumbent on the government to offer a direct apology. 

That the trial takes place in Shimonoseki is itself somewhat symbolic, given that this was the harbour from which boats to Korea and China departed and at which the women who were trafficked to Japan would have arrived. The film begins, however, in Busan where successful travel agent Moon Jung-sook (Kim Hee-ae) has ironically been accused of breaking the prevention of prostitution laws when a Japanese man is found dead after visiting a sex worker and it is revealed one of her employees had been running tours specifically geared towards sex tourism. Struck by Kim Hak-sun’s testimony, the association she leads of female business owners wants to do something to help and seeing as her company has been suspended, Jung-sook sets up a call centre on her premises for other victims of wartime sexual slavery and forced labour to come forward. 

Unlike some of the recent dramas dealing with the same issue, Min focusses on the resistance towards the former comfort women coming from within Korea itself. A taxi driver Jun-sook gets a lift from goes off on a rant describing the women as former sex workers out for a paycheque who should be ashamed of their sordid pasts while in any case all of this happened decades ago so why bring it up now? He is far from alone, even the Mayor describes them as “filthy women” when Jung-sook approaches him for help, and it’s obvious that many find the subject so embarrassing that they simply do not want to discuss it and blame the women for breaking the peace by speaking out. 

It’s also true that in the peculiarities of the political landscape of Korea, conservative elements tend to hold a more favourable view of Japan and the colonial era than might be expected. Economically, there are strong ties and Jung-sook, a fluent Japanese speaker, has close business relationships with Japanese clients which are endangered by her involvement with the comfort women cause. Her friend in the women’s association who runs a traditional-style hotel can be seen warmly greeting Japanese guests, at one point as she expresses her admiration for Kim Hak-sun in Korean to the television as they pass behind her. It’s clear that some would rather not rock the boat because this kind of politicking is often incompatible with running a successful business. 

Jung-sook is minded to buck the trend because she sympathises with the women’s suffering and with their rejection by mainstream society. She has the confidence to do this in part because the wealth she has accrued through business success gives her an unusual amount of power in a male-dominated, capitalistic society. Still she too struggles with contemporary notions of proper womanhood in being accused of neglecting her daughter through her workaholic lifestyle especially as she is considering leaving education claiming that studying isn’t for her. Even so, the women’s association seems to have female solidarity at its heart, collecting money to support single mothers even before taking up the cause and trying to help elderly women who have no remaining family members or means to support themselves. 

As she later comes to realise, the trial has meaning outside of winning and losing in allowing the women to express their trauma and regain some of their dignity. Even so, they are subject to further rejection in Japan, not least from a hotel which asks them to leave because other guests are unwilling to share the space with former sex workers. The Korean-Japanese lawyer also relates having faced racism in his life in Japan because of his Korean ethnicity while his mother’s restaurant is later graffitied because of their support of the case. Right-wing nationalists also hold protests outside the court and in Seoul accusing the women of lying, insisting that they are just “sex workers” as if sex workers weren’t worthy of human consideration anyway. In interpreting the testimony, Jung-sook becomes a kind of everywoman speaking for all women in her emotionally charged translation while inwardly conflicted in realising the toll the process is taking on some of the witnesses who are all in advanced age and often poor health. Min depicts their struggle with as much empathy as possible, avoiding the temptation to demonise while instead presenting a more nuanced perspective focussing on the women themselves and the rejection they continue face even within their own society.

Herstory is available digitally in the USA courtesy of Well Go USA.

Memento Mori (여고괴담 두번째 이야기, Kim Tae-yong & Min Kyu-dong, 1999)

Internalised shame leads to tragic, unforeseen consequences in landmark South Korean horror Memento Mori (여고괴담 두번째 이야기, Yeogogoedam Dubeonchae Iyagi). The second in a thematic series of high school ghost stories, the film was radical for its time in its presentation of same sex romance in demonising not the love but the world that would not accept it while otherwise painting a fairly bleak picture of the educational landscape in which teachers are only ever symbols of a corrupt authority intent on enforcing oppressive patriarchal social codes.

The film’s heroine is in many ways an audience member, or at least a fairly passive observer of the ongoing drama who only later inserts herself into the narrative. Min-ah (Kim Min-sun) discovers a mysterious “diary” near the sports ground and is quickly hooked on its cryptic contents even before realising that it details a lesbian relationship between two of her classmates who were at one point “close” but have since “drifted apart”. The author, Hyo-shin (Park Ye-jin), is already considered “weird” by her classmates and does seem to have an otherworldly quality, most particularly in her tendency to speak in an uncanny manner. She is also accused of being a “lesbian” by an obnoxious fellow student laying bare the way these teens already enforce a social prejudice which oppresses them all. 

Min-ah’s friend Yeon-an (Kim Jae-in) has been fasting for the last few weeks to try and get her weight down before the school’s physical health check up, while Ji-won (Gong Hyo-jin) is similarly concerned with her chest measurement. This is an all girls school, and there is a clear preoccupation with the ability to conform to notions of conventional femininity while all of the teachers that we see aside from the school nurse are male and enforce discipline with quite shocking levels of violence. Yeon-ah and Ji-won land up in trouble for playing around with a video camera they’d brought in to record choir practice when it’s discovered by a teacher who reacts as if he thinks the girls are on some kind of whistleblowing mission. He clearly feels that his authority has been questioned, which also implies that he knows his behaviour is “wrong”, and punishes the girls for their “rebellion” against him. 

After Hyo-shin dies in an apparent suicide, it is rumoured that she may have been pregnant which would certainly explain her desire to get out of the health check. In a flashback, she suggests that she may have drifted into an inappropriate sexual relationship with a dejected teacher, Mr. Goh (Baek Jong-hak), who claims that he doesn’t get on with his “materialistic” colleagues while fed up with the vacuous teenage girls he’s supposed to be teaching. Yet Mr. Goh appears to have suffered little after Hyo-shin’s death despite being the apparent father of her unborn child, leaving only Hyo-shin’s vengeful spirit to enact some kind of justice. 

It’s Mr. Goh who did in some way disrupt the relationship between Hyo-shin and Shi-eun (Lee Young-jin) who seems to feel on some level betrayed while deepening her inner conflict as regards her sexuality. Unlike the other girls, Shi-eun presents in a slightly more masculine fashion, not least because of her athleticism, and is filled with an internalised shame about her relationship with Hyo-shin which she otherwise does not share. In the dreamlike scene which opens the film, Hyo-shin and Shi-eun are plunged into water tied at the ankle by the red string of fate which in popular mythology signifies a true romantic connection. But as they fall together, Shi-eun begins to panic and unties herself. She violently pushes Hyo-shin away who then continues to sink into the murky depths below. This act of physical rejection is repeated several times, most notably when Hyo-shin kisses Shi-eun in front of their classmates shortly after she has been struck in the face by their teacher. Shi-eun pushes her away, and thereafter ignores her before directly stating that she is “ashamed” and does not care what Hyo-shin decides to do with her life. 

It’s this rejection that the film posits as the cause of Hyo-shin’s suicide, though the romance itself is constantly overshadowed by death. Obsessed with the diary, Min-ah eats a “magic” sweet stuck inside which is described as some kind of love poison for which Hyo-shin has an antidote, only in the climax of the film it seems to be the reverse and a kind of prelude to a double suicide. In the dreamworld created by Hyo-shin’s spirit, the schoolgirls assemble for something that looks a lot like a wedding though ostensibly a birthday party in which the couple is accepted by the world around them only in reality it can never happen in part because Shi-eun herself does not permit it to. 

Directors Kim and Min hint at the feverish atmosphere with blown out whites and strange angles even before entering the menacing dreamscape of Hyo-shin’s revenge, lending a note of unsteadiness to Min-ah’s obsessive investigation of the diary that perhaps reveals something of herself even as it draws her towards a dark spiritual destiny. In any case, what it leaves behind is a deep sense of melancholy for tragedy of the teenage lovers who in the end maybe the ones haunted by the world around them.

Memento Mori screened as part of this year’s Queer East .

Trailer (English subtitles)

Stateless Things (줄탁동시, Kim Kyung-Mook, 2011)

“We looked everywhere for a place for us to stay, but we could not find it anywhere” one of the twin heroes of Kim Kyung-mook’s indie drama Stateless Things (줄탁동시, Jooltak Dongshi) confesses. As the title suggests, Kim’s eventually surrealist drama follows those who no longer have a home and are instead condemned to wander the margins of an unforgiving city. Finding only loneliness and exploitation they long for an escape and perhaps find one if only in a moment of eclipse. 

Shooting in a more naturalistic, documentary style, Kim first focusses on the figure of Jun (Paul Lee), a young North Korean refugee who lost his mother in the crossing and his father to another woman in Busan. He works in a petrol station but is treated with disdain by his boss who has his eye on his female colleague, Soon-hee (Kim Sae-Byuk), who is a member of the Korean minority in China where most of her family reside. Though originally hostile towards each other, each wary of their mutual isolation and concurrent vulnerability, the pair later bond in a shared resentment of their boss who exploits Jun physically for his labour and seeks to exploit Soon-hee sexually. After each saving the other from the nefarious boss, the pair have no choice but to go on the run taking in a series of tourist spots while looking for another place to settle. 

Meanwhile, across town, a young gay man, Hyun (Yeom Hyun-Joon), is a virtual prisoner in the home of his wealthy, married and closeted lover. He looks out across the midnight city and dances sadly alone in a luxury apartment in the sky while occasionally venturing out to meet other men, mostly older, who similarly only intend to exploit his body. “You have nowhere to go.” the exasperated Sung-woo/Sung-hoon (Lim Hyung-Guk) insists, thrown into jealous anxiety on visiting the flat and finding Hyun absent, yet he cannot really offer him a “home” and is all too aware of the transactional nature of their relationship. Though Hyun is also in a sense “stateless”, he has a power over Sung-woo and is able to wield his youth and beauty like a weapon if one he may not fully be able to control. In any case, he too is excluded from the mainstream society by virtue of his sexuality and socio-economic background. 

When Soon-hee and Jun visit a temple, he remarks on the incongruity of seeing a painting that features both a sun and a moon. She explains a folktale to him in which sun and moon are embodiments of siblings who climbed a rope into the sky to escape a hungry tiger. In his diary, Hyun also envisages a pair of twins one opening a door with his right hand as the other closes it with his left. In the surrealist sequence which closes the film, after a title card that appears 90 minutes in, the two men blur into one another as if they shared the same soul in an almost literal eclipse of the self. Kim nevertheless characterises them as sun and moon who cannot ordinarily share the same space. Jun occupies a world of street level sunniness until the light finally begins to dim leaving him alone in a dusky, rain-soaked city. Hyun meanwhile lives by night in his high rise apartment, a prisoner of luxury who flirts with danger for a sense of escape. 

Then again we might ask if Jun and Hyun are two sides of one whole, a sun and moon protecting the king who finds himself an exile. Kim shifts to scenes of emptiness, rooms without presence and streets without life as if the two men were ghosts of themselves hovering above a rootless Seoul, the sense of eeriness only deepened by Kim’s lengthy takes as he follows Jun walking a lonely path towards nowhere in particular because in the end he too has nowhere to go. Departing from the realism with which the film opened, the final sequence gives way to a kind of rebirth if only one of wandering that leaves its heroes at the mercy of a society continually unwilling to recognise their personhood. 

Stateless Things screened as part of this year’s Queer East .

Trailer (English subtitles)

King and the Clown (왕의 남자, Lee Joon-ik, 2005)

The feudal order conspires against everyone from minstrel to king in Lee Joon-ik’s Shakespearean historical epic, King and the Clown (왕의 남자, Wang-ui Namja). The Korean title might translate to the equally ambiguous “The King’s Man”, but in any case invites the question of who it is that is the “king” and who the “clown” though in practice it might not matter because their roles are to a degree interchangeable. Nevertheless, a minstrel’s attempt to transgress class boundaries eventually leads to tragedy but also perhaps defiance in his seizing of the little freedom that is given to him. 

The oppressiveness of the system is emphasised in the opening text which explains the historical background and reveals that the king of this story was considered a tyrant, though also thought to be sensitive and intelligent, while permanently damaged by the early death of his mother who was forced to take her own life because of machinations in the court. The King (Jung Jin-young) himself rails at the system complaining that he has no real power and is largely unable to overrule the advice of his courtiers who remain loyal to his late father and simultaneously force him to obey the rule of a man who is already dead. In this internecine feudal society, not even the king is free. 

This might in a sense explain his tyranny, borne both of an anxiety over the precarity of his rule (the text also reveals that he was deposed by his courtiers shortly after the film concludes) and is otherwise engaged in a kind of frustrated boundary pushing. At heart, he is a wounded and petulant child. His eventual decision to participate in the clown show put on by Jang-saeng (Kam Woo-sung) and his troupe of jesters hints at his mental instability and growing inability to discern reality from fantasy, or to a point perhaps there is no true “reality” for a king and so the distinction no longer matters as there is no real difference for him between a man “dying” in a play and dying for real. 

For Jang-saeng, however, there is a difference. He and his brother-in-arms Gong-gil (Lee Joon-gi) are technically on the run after Gong-gil ended up killing their manager to defend Jang-saeng who had tried to protect him from exploitation in being pimped out as a male sex worker to earn extra money for the company. It’s Jang-saeng who hits on the lucrative opportunities of satire after teaming up with three other minstrels in the capital and hearing tales of the King’s scandalous sex life. This obviously gets him into hot water with the authorities, though Jang-saeng talks himself out of trouble by convincing conflicted courtier Cheo-seon (Jang Hang-seon) to allow them to perform before the King who actively enjoys being mocked and brings the clowns into the palace to entertain him at his pleasure causing a further rift with his conservative courtiers who do not enjoy having their dirty dealings exposed through bawdy street theatre. 

The repeated visual motif of the tightrope emphasises the fine line Jang-saeng is walking as a commoner in the court. Cheo-seon had hoped their performance would show the King the extent of the corruption among his courtiers, but the results leave Jang-seong conflicted as he sees men die as a result of his comedy while failing in his primary goal of protecting Gong-gil from exploitation as he quickly becomes a favourite of the King again endangering their position as they become a target for the King’s mistress (Kang Sung-yeon), a former sex worker who had like them used her natural gifts to transgress the boundaries of class. Cheo-seon complains that it’s the King’s “lust for a boy” which has corrupted the court, while Jang-seong’s resentment may otherwise be unwarranted as Gong-gil appears to like and pity the King and may have come to his own decision about advancing his fortunes despite Jang-seong’s assertion that there are some things that should not be sold.  

But as Jang-seong comes to realise, all around the tightrope is an abyss. “Never knew a fool who knew his place” Jang-seong wrote in one of his plays and that is in someways his tragedy, that he dared to challenge the social order but in the end could not overcome it and neither could the King. Even so he may find a kind of freedom in seeking escape from a cruel and oppressive society in the only way that is available to him. “The world’s but a stage. Kingly is he who struts for a while, then exits in style” Jang-seong exclaims, a “sightless fool” who finally knows where he stands.

King and the Clown screened as part of this year’s Queer East .

Trailer (English subtitles)

A Man and a Gisaeng (남자와 기생, Shim Wu-seob, 1969)

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 .

Home Ground (홈그라운드, Kwon Aram, 2022)

The ageing proprietor of an endangered lesbian bar reflects on the changing nature of queer culture in Korea over the last five decades in Kwon Aram’s contemplative documentary Home Ground (홈그라운드). “Home ground” is what many have come to regard spaces such as LesVos, but with changing times and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic maintaining them is becoming ever harder leaving the community with the few places to gather where they can come together in safety and solidarity. 

Though it has moved location, the documentary’s primary subject, Myong-woo, has run bar LesVos since in the late ‘90s. The first openly lesbian bar in Korea, it has provided a friendly and welcoming space for the LGBTQ+ community for almost 30 years though as Myong-woo relates times have certainly changed as they look back to the queer bars of Myeong-dong in 1970s including the legendary Chanel Tearoom which was raided by police in 1974 on the grounds of its scandalous “Decadence”. Kwon uses a mixture of stock footage and re-enactments to recreate the atmosphere of bygone eras as Myong-woo’s oldest friend Kkokji recalls the atmosphere at Chanel which had a strict no long hair rule and expected its patrons to dress smartly in suits. 

Like Myong-woo, Kkokji identifies himself as a transman and prefers to be address as “hyung” (older brother) though the pair are often mistakenly addressed as “auntie”. Myong-woo recalls breaking the heart of a boy in middle school whom he “dated” to fit in, knowing that he had to hide his sexuality though he seems to have been well accepted now in reuniting with a collection of school friends at LesVos. Kkokji meanwhile laments his difficulties finding employment because of his appearance and gender presentation while recalling a violent past as a street brawler and recruiter of women for bars in the ’70s and ’80s. 

LesVos by comparison seems to have been a more wholesome place, Myong-woo recalling that in the old days cherry coke and ice cream sundaes were firm favourites of the clientele. Before the bar existed, queer teens used to hang out in Shinchon Park where they found a sense of community along with an opportunity to meet new people in a comparatively safe place where they could be themselves. After checking with the licensing authorities who told him it was fine as long as he didn’t sell cigarettes or alcohol, Myong-Woo opened the bar to teens so they’d have a place to go that was safer than hanging out in the streets. 

Another former patron has created a safe space of her own in a queer-friendly dance studio where as she puts it they make life more fun and less lonely. Yet in the face of the pandemic, the community lost the ability to come together while faced with additional prejudice after the coronavirus cluster in an Itaewon club. As one interviewee relates, people began to blame LGBTQ+ people as if they were uniquely irresponsible without thinking about the reasons why the community feels the need to come together. Another adds that queer people were already “social distancing” before the pandemic, and that without queer spaces are often forced to hide who they are in a society which can often be hostile. 

Faced with the economic realities of the pandemic, Myong-woo worries he will have to close the bar while countless similar spaces have pasted closing notices on their doors. Myong-Woo himself is also ageing, a trip to the doctors revealing the toll standing for hours every day has taken on his feet while he’s also taken on another part-time job working in a kimbap shop with no money coming in through the bar. Even so he reveals how much he’s learning from his younger customers about how the community has changed while society largely refuses to. He reflects that he thought the young people of today had it better, but realises he is mistaken on attending a rally protesting the death of a transgender soldier who took their own life after being discharged from the army because of their transition. Myong-woo keeps the bar open to provide a place of refuge for those who may not have anywhere else to go, opening their doors on holidays for those who have only their queer family to rely on. “You can’t do it alone,” he reflects doing his best to preserve a small space of safety and solidarity amid a sometimes hostile atmosphere.

Home Ground screens at The Barbican 30th April as part of this year’s Queer East .

Sa Bangji (사방지, Song Kyung-shik, 1988)

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 

Jeong-sun (정순, Jeong Ji-hye, 2022)

“Is it a crime to be old?” a middle-aged woman asks after finding herself the centre of scandal in Jeong Ji-hye’s timely drama, Jeong-sun (정순). Surrounded by an ageist and misogynistic society, Jeong-sun has always bided her time and played by the rules but is acutely aware of her predicament as an older woman knowing that if she loses her factory job no one else will hire her and therefore submits herself to all the petty microaggressions of life on the margins. 

Chief among them would be her obnoxious floor manager Do-yun, little more than a teenager with a clipboard and an inflated sense of his own importance. She and the other women gossip about Do-yun’s dubious love life which partially relies on abusing his authority to date factory girls whom he gives preferential treatment and then discards once he’s bored. There’s also a rumour going around that the managers plan to fire some of the older workers like Jeong-sun after hiring permanent employees while a generational divide is developing between the full timers and the college students who turn up for the summer and secretly think they’re better than this. Jeong-sun accidentally offends one of them by playfully making fun of her putting on makeup in the changing room given that they’re all about to put on identical white uniforms and go through decontamination to head to the factory floor. 

The irony is that she begins to bond with new employee Yeong-su out of their shared sense of alienation as marginalised middle-aged people. Around her age, Yeong-su previously worked casual jobs in construction but has switched to the factory because of knee damage caused by years of manual labour. His physical injury has further damaged his sense of masculinity leaving him deeply insecure and desperate for approval from other men including that from the continually obnoxious Do-yun. When Do-yun asks him if he has a girlfriend, Yeong-su sheepishly replies that he’s too old for all that only for Do-yun to insultingly add that he doubts he has the time or money considering he just works on the shop floor. When Jeong-su’s daughter Yu-jin (Yoon Geumseona) and her fiancé ask her if she might have a boyfriend, Jeong-sun gives a similar reply seemingly feeling a degree of shame about being an older woman daring to date. She tells Yeong-su that they should slow down because she’s embarrassed to hear the other workers gossiping about them, but Yeong-su takes it the wrong away assuming that she too looks down on him for being a penniless factory worker with not much to his name.  

It’s this combination of ageism and sexism that gradually destroys their relationship. Mocked by Do-yun who calls him a “naive” man, Yeong-su shows him a video Jeong-sun had allowed him to take of her singing in her underwear in a moment of empowerment. Soon, it’s leaked online and Jeong-sun becomes the talk of the town, a figure of fun just for being a middle-aged woman embracing her sexuality. While the younger women laugh at her, Jeong-sun’s daughter and friends are universally sympathetic as is the policeman Yu-jin reports the incident to, but she later finds that not even the police really take the case seriously despite Jeong-sun’s increasingly precarious mental state. “I’m sorry to say this, but younger females are usually the victim” the policeman adds as they push Jeong-sun to settle, implying that no one’s all that interested in Jeong-su’s video and the taboo incident is somewhat embarrassing even to him. Yeong-su meanwhile offers a pleading “apology” before trying to convince Jeong-sun not to press charges because he’ll never work again with bad knees and a criminal record. 

Yeong-su said he’d move away and that it would all blow over, but Jeong-sun later catches sight of him laughing and joking with Do-yun and the other guys from the factory very much one of the boys. Her life has been ruined, but they’ve got off scot free. “Why should I stay put?” Jeong-sun finally asks in directly standing up to Do-yun who is after all a cowardly boy who bullies other men to bolster his fragile sense of masculinity. He responds by calling her a “crazy bitch” while she destroys his false authority and plays him at his own game, somehow taking something back if only in a moment of self-destruction. Where she finds herself is literally in the driving seat of her own life, seizing the opportunity for freedom and independence that comes with age but also the breaking of a spell that had been designed to keep her in her place. 

Jeong-sun screened as part of this year’s Red Lotus Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Switch (스위치, Ma Dae-yun, 2023)

An egotistical actor is given an unexpected lesson in what it is that makes life worth living when he’s suddenly transported to a parallel world in Ma Dae-yun’s charming Christmas dramedy, Switch (스위치). Rather than the body swap comedy the title might suggest, Ma’s warmhearted morality tale is a more a meditation on what might have been and may be again while contemplating the emptiness of a life of fame and riches when there’s no one to share it with. 

“What matters more than money?” top star Park Kang (Kwon Sang-Woo) chuckles after telling his manager he’ll accept a job he just described in quite insulting terms after being informed it comes with a hefty paycheque. Kang is currently riding high. He’s become enormously successful and even a recent sex scandal involving his co-star in a TV drama has only boosted his profile. Yet he tells his analyst that he can’t sleep and attributes it to “depression and anxiety”. He treats those around him poorly and most particularly his long suffering best friend from his fringe theatre days, Joe Yoon (Oh Jung-Se) who now works as his manager, while struggling to accept his loneliness and meditating on lost love in the memory of the woman he broke up with in order to chase stardom. 

After getting into a weird taxi one Christmas Eve, he’s suddenly granted the “wish” of getting to find out what would have happened if he’d made a different choice. After waking up in an unfamiliar house he discovers that he’s married with two children and slumming it fringe theatre while Joe Yoon is now the superstar having aced the audition Kang ran out on to chase Soo-hyun (Lee Min-Jung) to the airport and convince her not to leave. Of course, Kang is originally quite unhappy about all of this. He doesn’t understand why no one recognises him anymore and resents that he’s suddenly subject to the rules of “ordinary” people again after a decade as a pampered star. In his acceptance speech after winning an award, he’d stated his intention to “forget” his roots as a humble actor and embrace his new role as a member of the showbiz elite fully demonstrating his sense of alienation and insecurity along with his intense loneliness. As the taxi driver had said, Kang has “everything”. He’s achieved his dreams and lives the high life he’d always dreamed of, yet he’s deeply unhappy.

But his “new” life immediately challenges his sense of masculinity in realising that he has little power without money and is in fact financially dependent on Soo-hyun whom he may also have robbed of a bright future by preventing her from studying abroad and achieving success as an artist. Meanwhile he looks down on himself for continuing to follow his artistic dreams in fringe theatre when his plays attract few audiences members and make little money. Just as Joe Yoon had become his manager, so he ends up getting a taste of what it’s like trying to manage a “star” while coming to appreciate that Joe Yoon may be feeling just as lonely and unfulfilled as he once had. 

Yet even as Kang settles into his new life as a husband and father while slowly rebuilding his acting career though a combination of talent, supportive friendship, and good luck, he fails to learn the right lessons continuing to yearn for external validation through material success. He spends money on fancy dinners and tries to move the family into a swanky apartment in Seoul without realising that he’s already got a “home” in the quaint little provincial house he and Soo-hyun set up together filled with memories (that admittedly he doesn’t actually have) of the children when they were small. Slowly, he begins to look beyond himself while developing a new sense of security that means he doesn’t need to chase status-based affirmation in empty materialism but now has a new sense of what’s really important. A charming season morality tale with a little more than a hint of A Christmas Carol, Ma’s gentle drama never suggests that success itself is wrong or that Kang must give up his movie star persona to become a happy everyman but only insists that true happiness is brokered by treating others well and being treated well in return much more than it is by consumerist success.

Switch screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley April 22/24 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)

XX+XY (Lee Soh-Yoon, 2022)

According to the voiceover narration that opens Lee Soh-yoon’s lighthearted teen drama XX+XY, we live in an age of choices yet sometimes choice can itself be a burden. At least that’s how Jay comes to see it having been born intersex but encouraged to think that at some point they’re going to have to choose whether to live as a man or a woman as if those are the only options or the choice to continuing living just as they are is not available to them. 

In essence many of their problems could be solved by reducing social dependence on the gender binary. Having been mainly home schooled, Jay has decided to attend a regular high school in part to help them figure out who they are through interacting with other teenagers who, they discover, are also struggling with many of the same questions in trying to decide who they’ll be. Yet for Jay, there’s also the issue of social stigma surrounding the reality of their life as an intersex person which is little understood by the world around them. When their identity is exposed by a malicious person, Jay’s teacher sighs and asks “Why didn’t you hide it better?”, prompting their response that their identity is not something shameful that needs to be concealed while suggesting that the school is on one level at least failing in their duty of care in refusing to protect them from the fallout of being outed which is in part their fault in stemming from the indiscretion of a teacher. 

The idea that they have something to hide is also particularly hurtful to Jay because of their unusual family circumstances given that they were adopted by a couple in a happy marriage of convenience between a closeted gay man and a woman otherwise uninterested in marriage. Their father’s partner now also lives with them and is very much a part of the family as can be seen in cheerful family photo they have hanging on their living room wall. Jay’s father tells them that he wants them to live in a world where they can love freely without fear of judgement or of feeling forced into the kind of arrangement he and their mother have made, their happy partnership not withstanding. On the other hand, it’s also he who first raises the potentially problematic idea that Jay should decide their binary gender based on their sexual orientation only to be firmly slapped down by their mother. 

This is partly the thesis of the film, that Jay is figuring themselves out based on their feelings towards two potential suitors in childhood best friend Sera who’s always known that Jay is intersex and the smitten Wooram who fell for Jay thinking they were a girl and then confused by their more masculine presentation on arrival at school. As Sera later points out, Jay never directly states they are a boy but everyone assumes them to be one because they are wearing a boy’s school uniform and have short hair. It is the school that force Jay to make a concrete choice because of its persistent gender segregation which extends from uniforms, single sex bathrooms, and classroom cliques to different activities for boys and girls in PE. Jay has to make a choice because they have to pick a bathroom, only using the men’s means there’s no bins to dispose of sanitary pads forcing Jay to carry them around until they can find a place to discreetly dispose of them. The boys in Jay’s class are jealous of their popularity with girls, while immaturely gossiping about another boy they regard as effeminate and possibly gay because he is “small” and hangs out with the girls a lot. 

Meanwhile, the conservative attitudes towards sex and romance held by the school and society at large are also in themselves counterproductive. Teens try to buy condoms to be responsible but are turned away because they don’t have ID or a note from their parents and are even shouted at by a nosy old lady at the checkout all of which has them wondering if they should just go ahead without protection rather than giving up on the idea. When Jay’s intersex identity is revealed online, the teachers are more concerned about the concurrent rumour that they and Sera have slept together rather than the breaching of Jay’s privacy, only interested in what the other parents might say or that Jay’s identity on its own may negatively affect their reputation aside from the developing sex scandal. 

In any case supported by their new friends, Jay gains the confidence to believe that they, and everyone else, are good enough as they are and that there isn’t any point in worrying about the people who won’t accept them as they are now. The film may still imply that there’s a binary choice to be made and that whoever Jay decides to pursue romantically has a large impact on it, but nevertheless affirms Jay’s identity as it is and makes clear that it’s they who have a free right to define themselves independently of any social mores or commonly held beliefs. Warmhearted and generous of spirit, Lee’s teen drama finds that largely the kids alright treating each other with kindness and respect when given the opportunity to do so and only waiting for the adult world to catch up. 

XX+XY screened as part of this year’s BFI Flare.

International trailer (English subtitles)