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Minority Revolt

Jun 19, 2017
  • Writerby SONG Soon-jin
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The Next Generation of Korean Independent Queer Films

Taiwan’s decision to legalize same sex marriage this May shows the surging recognition of LGBT human rights happening across Asia. The Korean film scene also seems to be experiencing a shift with recent, well received releases of LGBT related stories. Acclaimed films such as the Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) Grand Prize-winner in Korean Competition, Our Love Story (2016), the first Korean film to receive the audience award at the Berlin International Film Festival, WEEKENDS (2016), and the Seoul Independent Film Festival (SIFF) audience award-winner, Jane, prove that the Korean independent queer film spectrum is expanding. 

Three Acclaimed Trendsetting Films

The first film to focus on is Director LEE Hyun-ju’s Our Love Story, an outstanding film which, after its recognition at JIFF, went on to be introduced to audiences overseas at such places as the Vancouver International Film Festival, Tokyo FilmEx, Warsaw International Film Festival and the Göteborg International Film Festival. The film quietly follows the story of Yoon-ju (LEE Sang-hee) a graduate student of fine arts who experiences the sweet but painful course of falling in love for the first time after meeting Ji-soo (RYU Sun-young) by chance. Tokyo FilmEx Program Director ICHIYAMA Shozo who was also a member of the JIFF Korean Competition jury commented on this love story between two young women, “The film gives an impressive account of the delicate relationship between the two characters, making it believable they are really in love.” Thanks to the favorable reviews from JIFF, Our Love Story was released in theaters last November, attracting approximately 24,000 admissions, a notable score for an independent queer film. 

Since being showcased at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival, WEEKENDS has also made the rounds, receiving rave reviews from audiences at both the Busan International Film Festival and the Seoul Independent Film Festival, and eventually being granted a Korean theatrical release last December. The film focuses on the ‘G_Voice’, a choir made up of members from Korea’s leading gay men’s human rights group ‘Chingusai' (Between Friends). Men of diverse ages and occupations who share the reality of living in Korea as a minority due to their sexual preference come together out of their love for singing. However, as they prepare for the choir’s 10th anniversary, age-old conflicts surface. A horrific example includes a humiliating incident where a hate group member sprays excrement on the choir as they sing during the wedding ceremony of Korea’s first same sex marriage couple. Filmmaker LEE Dong-ha introduces their story in a unique format that combines documentary, music video and re-enactments. 

Recently, Jane released in theaters on May 31st, continues this streak of acclaim for Korean independent queer cinema. Filmmaker CHO Hyunhoon’s Jane introduces the story of runaway teenager So-hyun (LEE Min-ji) who lives each day in despair until she finally experiences a glimpse of happiness after joining transgender Jane (KOO Kyo-hwan)’s ‘fam’ (slang for an alternative family consisting of runaway teenagers) known as the ‘Jane gang’. The films talented cast includes LEE Min-ji who plays lead character So-hyun, and KOO Kyo-hwan whose portrayal of transgender character Jane grabbed the spotlight to win the Best Actress and Actor of the Year awards at the 21st Busan International Film Festival. Attracting 17,000 admissions in 14 days, the audience response since the theatrical release has been good and that trend seems likely to continue for the time being. 

Beyond the Identity Dilemma

What is interesting though is that these critic and audience-supported films that are setting new trends for Korea’s queer cinema are all feature debut films from new filmmakers. Furthermore, it should be noted that they are approaching the subject of sexual minorities from a new and different gaze. After filmmaker LEESONG Hee-il’s No Regret (2006) which served as the milestone of Korean queer cinema, many queer films that were made afterwards focused on characters that were haunted by their sexual identity or ostracized by society after coming out of the closet. 

KIM Dong-hyun, Festival Director of the Seoul Independent Film festival states, “The commercial success of LEESONG Hee-il No Regret propelled the rise of Korean queer cinema. In the beginning, most of the films made were documentaries. In the case of feature films, filmmakers such as LEESONG Hee-il and KIMJHO Gwang-soo, head of Generation Blue Films chose to take the director’s seat as a conscious effort to promote gay issues as cultural and social activism. But as these were self-made films dealing with stories that took place within the gay community, the lack of diversity in story and point-of-view were inevitable. Furthermore, it was also regrettable that these films failed to move beyond their subject matters or step up on their production values”. However, the characters in the queer films recently presented by young filmmakers no longer linger on or agonize over their sexual identity. 

Such change in attitude played a great role in expanding the scope of subject matter. SEOUL International Women’s Film Festival programmer, CHO Hye-young explains, “If most of the topics in the past evolved around the issues of coming out or self-identity, stories based in reality that moves beyond the dilemma of identity to consider how far will one go regarding coming out of the closet, or relatable tales that can occur in various situations to a queer person and specifically exploring them are the changes that have been taking place since last year”. KIM Dong-hyun also comments, “The stories have clearly become more multi-dimensional and diverse. You will notice that filmmakers have started to contemplate how a queer person relates to his/her own community as well as the world surrounding them”. 

Raising Popularity with New Subject Matters and High Production Qualities

Queer films have improved in diversity as well as production qualities. According to KIM Dong-hyun, “Jane raised the bar for production qualities of such films” adding, “The subject of transgender people was rarely dealt with in previous queer cinema, but transgender people are depicted as extremely interesting characters in Jane. They are introduced as positive characters who embrace those around them and suggest a good example of the ideal community”. 

It is also affirming to see diversity in the way stories are being told. Filmmaker LEE Dong-ha of WEEKENDS relates the background to his film, “While I was documenting the course of preparing the G_Voice’s 10th anniversary concert, it donned on me that the members’ stories were unique but also universal. I was convinced I could shed light on Korean society through them” also saying, “I was planning to use the songs created and sung by the G_Voice choir which were based on the members’ true stories. I thought about what it would be like to recreate the inspiration and background to the songs so I recreated them in musical or music video format”.  

It is also noticeable that queer women’s stories have become more visible within the queer men-centered independent queer film scene. Our Love Story takes advantage the female queer fandom that, through social media, aided the critical and commercial success of a number of recent foreign, queer women’s films such as Blue is the Warmest Color and Carol. KIM Dong-hyun explains, “Our Love Story was not influenced by foreign films such as Carol though it did get more favorable reviews because there was an audience that could relate to and embrace films such as Blue is the Warmest Color and Carol, or PARK Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden”.  

Upcoming films, including NAM Yeon-woo’s LOST TO SHAME which is scheduled to be released in theaters at the end of September, are expected to stretch the scope and stable trend of Korean independent queer cinema. KIM Dong-hyun claims, “I believe the accomplishments of such independent queer films will serve as a momentum for the mainstream film industry to take a stand and discover new subject matters”.
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