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)

Rebels of the Neon God (青少年哪吒, Tsai Ming-Liang, 1992)

Towards the end of Tsai Ming-liangs’s Rebels of the Neon God (青少年哪吒, Qīngshàonián Nézhā), a young man exasperatingly stuffs a series of rags into the busted drain in his kitchen which has been relentlessly leaking water all over the apartment. In many ways it’s a kind of metaphor for his life as he attempts to staunch the flow of “bad luck” he’s been experiencing over the last few days, but like so many things for him it does not quite go to plan. 

As to why, it’s not exactly clear except that A-tze (Chen Chao-jung) is a kind of outcast beneath the neon skies of a changing Taipei. He and his friend A-ping (Jen Chang-bin) earn their money breaking into telephone boxes and vending machines for loose change before at one point stealing the motherboards from arcade consoles and unsuccessfully trying to sell them back to the person they stole them from. All they get for their pain is a literal battering while A-tze’s frustrated romance with sometime girlfriend Mei-kuei (Wang Yu-wen) similarly flounders in the wake of his ennui. 

The karmic debt he bears is however mainly down to a random act of pointless violence in knocking the wing mirror off a taxi driver’s car for no real reason save momentary impulse. Even so, the taxi driver’s son Xiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) had already been watching him and soon discovers a fascination with the rebellious young man that is ambiguous in quality. What becomes obvious is that Hsiao-kang is at odds with the world in which he lives. His mother (Lu Yi-ching) reveals that a fortune teller told her he is the reincarnation of “Neon God” Nezha, a chaotic child who later killed the authoritarian father with whom he could not get along. Hsiao-kang’s mother tells this to her husband (Miao Tien) as a kind of warning, advising that his authoritarian parenting style is doing his son no good, but Mr. Lee isn’t minded to listen. Finding out that Hsiao-kang has dropped out of cram school and kept the refunded tuition money for himself, Mr. Lee throws him out which of course leaves him free to follow A-tze all around Taipei day and night before childishly damaging his motorcycle. 

In disabling the bike, Hsiao-kang perhaps hoped to ruin A-tze’s freedom, symbolically taking from him independence and a sense of possibility. Then again, perhaps in another way he hoped to engineer a friendship. Riding around on his own scooter, he draws up behind A-tze pushing his to a garage and offers help but A-tze tells him to buzz off. In fact, A-tze never acknowledges Hsiao-kang. He never recognises him or realises that he’s being followed though he does later remember Mr. Lee and is struck by guilty futility not really knowing why he decided to arbitrarily ruin someone’s day while reflecting that all his days are ruined. The water in his apartment continues to rise all around him as if emphasising his mounting sense of despair. Mei-kuei tries to break up with A-tze before asking him to go away with her. They ask each other where they would go, but neither has any answer. 

A remorseful Mr. Lee later comes home and makes the point of leaving the front door ajar, symbolically open to his son’s return while Hsiao-kang remains lost. He visits a telephone dating service having heard Mei-kuei moonlight by answering one while working at the ice rink, but in the end cannot even pick up the phone. Staring at a picture of James Dean, he longs for the sense of rebellion he is drawn to in A-tze but is still the chaotic boy, dancing wildly like a wheelless Nezha and seemingly with no further sense of direction. In the end, it’s the city of Taipei which is the “neon god” of the title, arbitrarily ruling over each of the boy’s lives even as it ironically emerges from the authoritarian past into hypermodern urbanity. Hsiao-kang is little better off than the cockroach he ironically skewers on the point of his compass, and A-tze little than that which circles his overflowing drain carried inexorably on the current on a circular journey towards nowhere in particular. Many of Tsai’s key themes are already here, urban alienation, loneliness, futility, and the crushing sense of emptiness of life in the contemporary era even as he turns his gaze to the overcast skies of a city lit only by despair.

Rebels of the Neon God screened as part of this year’s Queer East .

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / 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 .

About Us But Not About Us (Jun Robles Lana, 2022)

A lunchtime conversation between two men provokes a series of confrontations in Jun Robles Lana’s pressing psychological drama About Us But Not About Us. There is indeed more going on than it seems, prompting a number of questions about who it is that’s really in control along with the subjective quality of memory and personal myth making. After all as the younger of the men later says, nothing compares to our fictional counterparts both those we create for ourselves and those born of the projections of of others. 

40-year-old professor Eric (Romnick Sarmenta) takes a look at the bags under his eyes in the mirror of his classic Beetle as he arrives at a restaurant for a lunch meeting with a student and gently applies moisturiser to his eyes before heading inside. It’s a small moment that hints at his insecurity about his age and also that he may have more interest in the student, Lance (Elijah Canlas), than he later claims. Lance is already waiting, perky and preppy in his neutral beige outfit and non-threatening haircut. The purpose of the meeting seems to be so that Lance can return the keys to Eric’s spare flat where he had being staying to escape an abusive stepfather. Lance no longer feels comfortable being there, in part because he’s afraid false rumours that there may be something inappropriate going on between them could cause problems for them both at the university, but also because he worries that his presence may have contributed to the suicide of Eric’s late partner Marcus, a leading light of English-language literature in the Philippines. 

Marcus had known about Eric’s interest in Lance but warned him about becoming too involved seeing as he is a teacher and Lance his student not to mention that he is also 20 years older and even if he’s done nothing wrong others may read his well-meaning attempts to help as “inappropriate”. But then we start to wonder, is Lance really as helpless as he claims to be? It seems strange that a 22-year-old man would need this kind of rescuing, perhaps as some have suggested he’s constructed an image of himself as vulnerable so that Eric will feel compelled to help him. Despite his seeming meekness, Lance does appear to be ambitious yet insecure smarting from an offhand comment of Marcus’ that he may in the end lack the necessary talent to be accounted a writer. 

In a theatrical conceit, Lana realises the projected images each has of the other to segue into recreations of previous meetings in which either Eric or Lance plays the role of the absent Marcus whose views are recounted only in the book he had written shortly before he died, his first in Filipino, or filtered through the memories and intentions of the other two men who of course may not be entirely honest in their recollections. Eric insists the problems that may or may not have existed between himself and Marcus were not not really “about” Lance. He claims to have been unhappy and emotionally neglected for years if also still in love, while later conceding that the book is both about and not about them in its retelling of a “trashy” love triangle as an intensely literary potboiler. 

That the book is in Filipino rather than English may hint at a further desire for “authenticity”, as may Lance’s desire to transfer from the English department to that in his native language. Yet neither man is really being “authentic”, not entirely able to reclaim themselves from the image projected onto them by others. The battle for control shifts uneasily between them, Eric assuming he has the upper hand by virtue of his age and position all while Lance may be cynically manipulating him, playing on his latent desire while fluffing his ego in appearing as a lost young man in need of help and guidance. Even so, a possibly imagined conversation with Marcus later suggests that Eric enjoys the subversion and is at heart a masochist who actively seeks to be controlled, perhaps he knows what the game is after all. Lana ends on a note of ambiguity in which it seems there is a choice to be made between sustaining a fiction and rejecting it but then again “sometimes feelings are more important than the truth.”

About Us But Not About Us screened as part of this year’s Queer East .

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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 

Bad Women of China (中华坏女人, He Xiaopei, 2021)

“Mum gave all her love to the Party and saved her grudges for family.” As she explains, documentarian He Xiaopei began her documentary Bad Women of China (中华坏女人, Zhōnghuá Huài Nǚrén) as a means of communicating with the mother who remained silent and distant towards her, yet nevertheless contemplates three generations of Chinese women through the prism of her own life as a lesbian who lived much of her life abroad. 

After many years living in the UK, Xiaopei returned to China with her grown-up daughter Qiao whom she ended up asking to interview her mother Yun Li in an attempt to improve her relationship with her. In a sense it works, Yun Li begins to talk about her life and history which as it turns out is very much intertwined with that of the Communist Party. The disconnection between them stems from Xiaopei’s sense of abandonment, unable to understand as a child why her mother decided to live separately from the family in a dorm at the Foreign Languages Institute where she studied and trained diplomats. In the prelude to the Cultural Revolution, Yun Li was branded a “rightist”. Sent to the country for re-education she seems to have overcorrected, leaving her family to prove her devotion to the Party. 

Then again, despite her hurt and longing Xiaopei is later forced to realise that she became a mother much like her own. Though she identified herself as a lesbian at a young age, Xiaopei married at random to have an attachment that was to life more than anything else and then had her daughter but became estranged from the husband with whom she had little in common. She too left Qiao behind for long periods of time while she went to study abroad, first as an economist and then intending to study feminism before eventually moving to the UK with longtime partner Susie and bringing her daughter with her. In the closing scenes of the film which are shot with sound only against a black screen, Qiao confronts her mother in the way Xiaopei was unable to do directly telling her that she felt neglected, that she wanted more love and a sense of reassurance Xiaopei was unable to give her. 

Qiao too is in many ways much like her mother and grandmother, a fiercely independent woman with complicated and fast moving love life. Yun Li had been something of a trailblazer, choosing a husband for herself and getting married on her own only informing her family afterwards in an age which still favoured arranged marriage. She was once struck dumb in childhood when an uncle who was taking care of her refused to let her attend school, and is insistent that a woman should be financially independent rather than rely on a man. Xiaopei broke with convention in divorcing her husband to embrace her authentic self by living openly as a lesbian albeit in the comparatively less conservative UK where she eventually married in 2005 if only to divorce some years later. 

This rebellious sense of autonomy is perhaps why Xiaopei titles the film “bad women” as each of them in some way reject social convention, though there is also the implication that Yun Li’s life was disrupted by her involvement with the Communist Party to which she remains devoted despite the way it treated her and the way she knows it to have treated others. Xiaopei reflects that Yun Li was never interested in fulfilling the stereotypical role of the good wife and mother, and realises that in the end neither was she though she tried to do her best and is in a sense received that Qiao wants her to be a partner and a friend in her life even if she could never fully reconcile with Yun Li who remained frustratingly distant from her. In a certain way, their reconciliation hints at a new sense of liberation in the modern society that allows the women to shake off the roles of mother and daughter and rebuild their relationship on a more equal footing even while the family scatters itself around the world increasing the physical distance between them but shrinking the emotional. 

Bad Women of China screens at Bertha DocHouse 27th April as part of this year’s Queer East 

Trailer (English subtitles)

What Happened to the Wolf? (Na Gyi, 2021)

Two terminally ill women slowly fall in love while circling the spectre of death in Na Gyi’s poignant queer romance, What Happened to the Wolf?. Homosexual activity is currently illegal in Myanmar and carries a 20-year prison term. The situation has only declined since the military coup which occurred in 2021. Director Na Gyi has since gone into exile along with his wife, actress Paing Phyo Thu, while her co-star Eaindra Kyaw Zin was herself arrested for protesting against the junta.

Given these conditions, the film may seem in a way coy or perhaps oblique but is also filled with a sense of melancholy longing that culminates in a well earned moment of emotional serenity. As the husband of heroine later suggests, they’ve been unhappy for a long time and only now that she’s been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and been given only a year at most to live does Myint Myat (Eaindra Kyaw Zin) begin to reflect on her life and regret its missed opportunities. The film opens with her attempting to take her own life, explaining that she did not want to be waiting around to die though has a few “things to take care of” that made her reconsider her decision. 

It’s in the hospital that she first encounters Way Way (Paing Phyo Thu), a rebellious young woman born with a hole in her heart who has had quite a tragic life but seems to Myint Myat to have come to an accommodation with the proximity of death. As she later begins to realise, Way Way’s vivacity is also an act of self-delusion to mask her fear of mortality but nevertheless her lust for life begins to reawaken something in Mying Myat who is beginning to wonder what her life which has largely been defined by ideas of conventional success has really been for. 

When she laments that she was raised with a “proper system”, it reads both as a mild rebuke against an authoritarian culture and a frustration directed at her own internalised repression. Na Gyi’s camera often shoots with lingering desire, a close up on Way Way’s neck pregnant with longing as a conflicted Mying Myat considers reaching out but cannot bring herself to do so. As she reveals to Way Way, she never saw the point in dancing only for the younger woman to try to teach her how which is really a way of trying to show her how to live. 

But Way Way also has her own troubles which have led her to push people away so they wouldn’t miss her when she’s gone, though most of all what she fears is being left behind alone. She rejects her brother out of a mix of guilt and love in feeling unworthy that he gave up his artistic desires of becoming a photographer to become a doctor in order to cure her disease. She takes pictures with his old-fashioned film camera and listens to cassette tapes on a classic walkman as if longing for a long lost past. With her retro sensibility it might seem as if the (slightly) older Myint Myat is falling for the embodiment of her own frustrated youth and she does indeed seem to meditate on the things she lost along the way much as her architect husband gave up painting to work for the father she resents while she poured everything into her business. 

The film’s title takes itself from a shadow play Way Way acts out while the pair are holed up in a “haunted” house hoping to see a ghost. A wolf comes across a peacock and is jealous of its beautiful feathers. The wolf pounces, but the peacock flies away unfurling its beautiful plumage as it goes. Myint Myat wonders what happened to the wolf after that, but Way Way doesn’t have an answer for her. In some ways it’s difficult to define which of them might be the wolf and the other peacock for each of them begins to rediscover a sense of beauty in their unexpected connection even while the spectre of death hangs over them both. The film might in a sense answer the question of its title though only in the most melancholy of senses even as the two women transcend themselves as they make their way towards a place beyond the clouds.

What Happened to the Wolf? screens at BFI Southbank 24th April as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)