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[REVIEW] Realities of queer life finally make it to Korean theaters: Can more movies about LGBTQ individuals change local perceptions?

Nov 14,2019
Yoon-hee and Sae-bom walk through the snowy streets of Otaru, Japan, on their trip together to find Yoon-hee’s first love in “Moonlit Winter.” [LITTLE BIG PICTURES]
It’s better late than never, but does that mean it’s okay now?

British film “Maurice” opened in local theaters last week, 32 years after it was filmed. Although the acclaimed film took home the Silver Lion award at the 44th Venice International Film Festival, it was never shown in Korea due to its depiction of a homosexual relationship. The release of the film coincides with the premiere of the local queer film “Moonlit Winter,” which arrived in theaters today.

As attitudes about the LGBTQ community slowly evolve in Korea, the fact that the two films about queer characters are in theaters at the same time can be seen as progress in a country where many queer people are still fighting to be heard and accepted.

“Moonlit Winter” revolves around Yoon-hee (played by Kim Hee-ae), a mother who has spent many years of her life denying her sexuality and living unhappily married to her husband. The film begins after Yoon-hee divorces her husband and begins living with only her daughter Sae-bom (played by Kim So-hye).

Sae-bom does not understand why her mother always seems sad until she discovers a letter sent by Yoon-hee’s first love from high school, Jun. While reading the letter, Sae-bom realizes that Jun is a woman.

After finding out about her mother’s sexuality, Sae-bom is neither disgusted nor frightened. Instead, she tries to elaborately plan a way for her mother and Jun to meet up, even going as far as to suggest to her mother that they go on a vacation to Otaru, Japan, together, where Jun currently resides.

“While I was making the film, I asked myself repeatedly ‘What is love?’ and wanted to make a film that answers that,” director Lim Dae-hyung said at a press conference last week. “I thought the power of love transcends other obstacles such as nationality, race, age and gender, and that’s why I decided to make this film.”

Although the director did not mention any direct parallel with “Maurice,” the characters of the two films are very similar people living in different worlds. In “Maurice,” two young men, Maurice Hall and Clive Durham, become lovers but are separated due to the strict traditional norms of 20th century Britain, during which a same-sex relationship could put one’s honor and wealth at risk. Clive, afraid that his future is at stake, gives in to social norms and ends the relationship.

Similarly, Yoon-hee, at her parents’ coercion, is pushed toward conventional family life, while Jun cuts herself off from human relationships and hides her sexuality, knowing that nothing good could come out of it being revealed. After being separated from Jun, Yoon-hee says that she’d thought the rest of her life was a “punishment” she had to endure.

The problems that the characters face reflects the real-life obstacles that people in the LGBTQ community face in the real world. “Moonlit Winter” reflects the sacrifice that many have to make when they are forced to conform to the “social order.”

Top: Yoon-hee, played by actor Kim Hee-ae, reminisces about her time together with Jun as she peruses a childhood photo album in the film “Moonlit Winter.” Above: In a scene from “Maurice,” Clive and Maurice fear that their relationship may put them in danger.[LITTLE BIG PICTURES, CINECOM PICTURES]
But while “Maurice” was filmed 32 years ago, “Moonlit Winter” is perhaps the first wide-release Korean film to tackle the realistic problems that many queer Koreans endure. Although queer films such as director Lee Hyun-joo’s “Our Love Story” (2016) and director Lee Song Hee-il’s “Night Flight” (2014) and “White Night” (2012) have been made, the films failed to make a major impact in the local film industry after both of the directors were swept up in sexual harassment accusations in the wave of Me Too movement. Both directors have remained off the grid ever since.

And although director Park Chan-wook’s 2016 film “The Handmaiden” received praise for having two lesbian main characters, the adventures of Sook-hee and Hideko are far from reality, giving their relationship an almost fantasy-like quality to it. Other local queer films similarly describe homosexuality as merely a “phase” that one goes through in their teens or mix it up with other genres such as horror or thriller, which don’t really touch on the realities of queer life in Korea.

“When problems are created by just one or two directors, but the entire queer genre is affected by it, it shows how infrequently LGBTQ issues arise in the local film industry,” said film critic Cho Hye-young. “Right now, there are too few of these queer films all together. Only when a lot of queer films are made and spread, then can we begin look at them in a critical way. It’s the matter of quantity, not quality.”
In order for the film industry to change, reality needs to change as well, added Cho.

“Because we do not see many out queer people in our lives, we frame them as having stereotypical qualities or personalities that we’ve imagined in our heads,” said the critic. “First of all, sexual minorities have to be brought into the light, and that can’t be done by one or two exceptionally talented directors. But in order for them to be truly out into the open, they need to believe that they can at least protect their security, such as the enactment of anti-discrimination laws to ensure that they won’t lose their jobs or ruin their lives.”

It’s no secret that Korean society still has a long way to go. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report “Society at a Glance 2019” compiled data from 36 countries on the acceptance of homosexuality from 2001 to 2014. Based on the scale of one to 10, Korea was given a 2.8, the fourth-lowest out of the 36 OECD countries. Although the score is a small improvement from the 2.0 it had from 1981 to 2000, local perceptions of the LGBTQ community are still far below the average of 5.1.

“Korea is lagging behind compared to the OECD average regarding the acceptance of homosexuality,” reads the report. “Low acceptance of LGBT people puts them at risk of discrimination.”

However, the fact that “Moonlit Winter” has been released in local theaters may be a glimpse at the possibility of a better environment for the LGBTQ community and gender awareness in Korea.

According to director Lim, the film wasn’t intended to pit minorities against the majority. Instead, it was a call for love and for diversity of love. So let’s love and love the possibility of love.

“It’s not a sheer coincidence that ‘Kim Ji Young, Born 1982’ (2016) became a best seller in Japan and ‘Disgust Against Women’ (2012) became a best seller in Korea. Through the film, I wanted to portray how East Asian women connect and love,” said Lim.

BY LEE JAE-LIM [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr ]


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