First of all: Don’t panic! It’s only love. There’s nothing to be afraid of in this article, except maybe learning something new, and that’s all I want. No hidden agenda, no anger, this is whole thing is about acceptance and tolerance and finding better representation for an underappreciated minority and if you can’t deal with that? Then find my post with the Rant Blender and just jump on in it. As the 4D member here at The One Shots, it’s my job to make you think. South Korea is anything but gay friendly right now, panicking at the notion of two men kissing, for example, but collected here are the incredible leaps the Korean LGBT society has had in terms of their representation in movies and K-dramas. But why does it matter?
Now, as apart of a pretty big minority myself, I’ve never been able to completely convey the importance of what it feels like to see someone that looks like you, that acts like you, that represents you on a screen for the world to see. Actors become ambassadors, story-lines become metaphors, everything is either embarrassing refreshing, or inspring. Now as a film student my job is to study movies and by association, myths and what is mythology but the captured essence of a population’s subconscious? It’s how one perceives themselves, their society, their world and it’s crystallized in the stories they make that they say matter to them. It’s a critical theory based off of following reoccurring thematic elements in a story and since LGBT films are my specialty I think I’m – deja vu alert – twenty percent more qualified to talk about them then the average fanboy.
I won’t inundate you with all the facts but know this: according to most, the first Korean movie to deal with the idea of same-sex attraction openly is The King and Clown (2005) while the first real gay feature film is No Regret (2008). Overall, queer cinema, when not a documentary, usually comes in two flavors: tragic and campy-as-fuck, the latter of which is usually for recreational viewing and never contains any true merit in the eyes of critics. Hence why the earlier two films mentioned are more less revered because the former is just a complex and moving story – ending beautifully but tragically – and the other just has bad things happen to the main character who sort of gets out of it okay. Not trying to lessen the quality of these films at all, but it’s significant to note when you’re heroes, the people you have represent you, have nothing but tragedy await them at the end of their stories. Ever heard of a movie called Brokeback Mountain? That and Milk are examples of two of the most respected LGBT films in the world, and they end. in. TEARS. Uh – uh. Think on how telling that is of someone’s self-perception/worth? My friend, also gay, said something very potent to me about this: “I’m tired of wanting to cry every time I see me on a movie.” That’s a problem with queer cinema, universally, not just in South Korea.
So imagine my surprise then when I watched the works of Kim Jho Kwang Soo, one of the first openly gay directors from South Korea, and was bedazzled by an artistic voice that refused to be ashamed or depressed about who he was and how he approaches the world. His work is a great launching point for anyone looking to learn more about men kissing men on film, in a familiar but new way no less. Starting from his first short film Boy Meets Boy we’re introduced to the quirky mindset of a director who pursues the topic of same-sex relationships in such an innocent and eccentric way that it’s hard not to enjoy the whimsical nature of his story-telling. It’s premise is beyond simple: boy meets boy on a bus, doesn’t know how to react or if the other boy likes him, and then debates whether or not to pursue his interest. The best part of the film is the advice he’s given by an expert on love, and sweet Shisus if it’s not one of the funniest most random things I’ve ever seen.
That kind of technique of just adding in the extremely absurd with reckless abandon and having it fit has become a staple of Jho-Soo’s work. His subsequent film Just Friends? moved passed idealized puppy love and discussed being gay in the military with two lovers, one who was in service and one who was not. At the time of its release – early 2009 – it unintentionally became a statement about the anti-gay military ban – Article 92 – that was currently under review. Kwang Soo’s third film Love 100º C is noted as taking an incredible dramatic shift from his previous works and just ends with main character in absolute anguish. What? But I just got finished saying I love him for not doing that. Fortunately he explains why and his quote here is incredibly enlightening on several levels:
“My shorts are from my past. Just Friends? and Boy Meets Boy were after I recognized and identified myself as a gay man, so they could be bright and showed the positive side. However, Love 100ºC is a memory from the dreaded time before I realized that I was gay, so the story goes more dramatically and heads to a sad ending.”
Wow, okay, so one could infer that that might be a major cause in all this unhappiness one sees in queer cinema, which is a point I could go off on but I will not, because I don’t ramble (see me, haha, totally not rambling. Huh, what’s rambling? Definitely not what I’m doing!) So then, Kim Jho Kwang Soo goes on to talk about how all those different shades of himself, reflected in each movie, is what prepared him for his first feature film debut Two Weddings and a Funeral. The plot is fairly simple, a young man named Min-soo wishes to hide his true feelings for men from his family and society at large by marrying a good friend of his who’s a lesbian. Hyo-Jin, his lesbian wife, hopes to adopt a baby, something that’s tough to do as a single parent and close to flat out impossible with her girlfriend in tow. Of course things don’t work out as planned so there’s the conflict of hiding their secret from their families, and their co-workers. Then shit really hits the fan when – again – that obligatory tragic ending comes out of nowhere and threatens to take the movie down with it but not this time apparently, and all’s well that ends well…wait…that right there. That doesn’t happen in gay movies. But evidently it does in Kim Jho Kwang’s movies, and I’m so happy to have watched all his shorts before seeing this one to identify all the elements that make this work completely unique unto this director. One thing he uses masterfully is the idea of stereotypes to perpetuate change in stereotypes. That’s a little too 4D-ish, actually so let me explain.
One of my professors taught me about why it is that stereotypes continually win over substance, especially when it comes to LGBT culture and representation and used the movie In and Out as an example. It starred an American celebrity named Kevin Kline who plays one of the most stereotypical gays on the planet. He’s a teacher who’s living in the closet, and about to get married when one of his students wins a national award and outs him accidentally in his acceptance speech. Blah blah blah hilarity ensues, lessons are learned, drama happens, and Kline’s character finally accepts himself for who he is. This movie, like Two Weddings and a Funeral, begets an infinitesimal amount of brainpower to understand it, while still perpetuating the same flamboyant theatrics yet again, but it did something. It showed straight Kevin Kline, again a very famous movie star, as a gay man and when his fans and just the general audience saw it they thought: “Well this doesn’t scare me…in fact it’s really funny…that’s so cool…so what was so bad about gays again?” And BAM! The seeds of tolerance were sown.
What’s funny is how that same typical portrayal of gay men can be seen years later on the small screen in Western shows like Modern Family and The New Normal, for example. Same setup, same stereotypes, but now people are finally seeing them as people. They’re not clubbin’, they’re raising families; they’re not spreading diseases, they’re holding jobs; they’re not constantly worrying about being gay, they’re focused on just trying to get through life with the people they love, just like everyone else. And whether you know it or not that’s leaps and bounds forward in the right direction. The creator of the show Modern Family says that a gay couple stopped him and said: “Thank you, you’re not just educating the public about gays but you’re also making them more tolerant.” And the same goes for South Korea as well in the K-dramas and soap operas where there’s just this blossoming of realistic portrayals on everyday television. Characters like Taesub and Kyungsoo from the show Life is Beautiful (2010) were the first ever gay couple on any Korean TV show and the fact that they’re meticulously crafted to be honest and sincere portraits of real people, by the highly esteemed drama writer Kim Soo-Hyun, means that more attention is being paid to make sure that progress isn’t put into reverse. They have been at the center of many a protest and found that people are now standing up for what they want to see on a screen which hopefully transitions to what they want to see in real life!
The future outlook on this kind of representation looks good. It looks magnificent actually, but “how do you know?” you ask. Well to see where the LGBT’s future is heading we have to go back in time, back to 1997 for a Reply. Get it? Because it’s the K-drama Reply 1997 that I’m referring to..Anyway, the show’s finale had me in tears, but not because it was the saying goodbye to all these characters that you let in your home and hearts, blah blah, blah, but because they gave Jun-hee (played by INFINITE‘s Hoya, he was the introverted, calm, boy-loving boy-next-door) a happy ending. After saying he’s getting picked up from the reunion dinner by his significant other, a red car comes up, presumably with his lover, and he gets in, waving back to us happily. Happily. Adding to this heartwarming sentiment is the idea that the show ends in 2012 showing that this gay man, starring this straight, masculine celebrity everyone loves (lookin at you Kevin Kline metaphor), breaking all the stereotypes and being a deep character first and gay second? AND he ends up finding his own true love? Fuck yeah, water works: initiated! All this and so much more has me shivering with antici……pation(Rocky Horror Picture Show reference alert…still not rambling) and I can’t wait to see what other envelopes get pushed, however gently, in the upcoming year. Just think and marvel at it all! What kind of brave new world awaits us, and with such beautiful men it…kissing each other. #deathbyfangirling (NOTE: this post was about the G in LGBT, don’t worry the others will be for another time)
(OSEN, YAM Magazine, Asianwiki)