‘Queer wave’ sweeps Korean theaters
“Brokeback Mountain” opened at number one at the box office last weekend (although it was number 4 for the week), while number two “King and the Clown” this week broke the record for the highest grossing Korean film ever.
On a smaller scale, “La Maison de Himiko,” a Japanese film by Isshin Inudo set in a gay retirement home, has enjoyed an extended run since January, while “Time to Leave” (Le Temps Qui Reste) by French director Francois Ozon ― known as an enfant terrible of French gay movies ― is doing well at arthouse cinemas.
“It’s an unfamiliar subject,” says Park Jin-hyung, a film festival programmer, explaining the appeal.
Ironically, just over a decade ago, the country was a lot less tolerant about homoerotic subjects, which always faced an uphill battle with the censors.
In 1993, the Public Performance Ethics Committee threatened to censor the full-frontal nudity of a male cross dresser in Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game.” Four years later, the government almost banned Wong Kar-wei’s “Happy Together,” which was about a gay couple in Buenos Aires. The censors explained their decision, saying the film could “potentially harm the social customs of Korea.”
A few Korean films such as “The Scarlet Letter,” a lesbian romance, and “Road Movie,” a travelogue of struggling gays, were shown at film festivals, but were far from reaching a mainstream audience.
But last week the Korean media officially proclaimed that a “queer wave” had swamped the nation.
Days after “Brokeback Mountain” was released, the film’s title ranked seventh most searched term in the weekly buzz index at Naver, the nation’s leading search engine.
The film has received unanimous praise from the local press, including the Chosun Ilbo, Korea’s leading conservative broadsheet. The film’s story of gay lovers is “poignant and overwhelming,” the paper wrote.
The film weekly Cine 21 ran a special feature on the film and Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, titled “A Landscape of Loss Fused with Silence and Confession.” Film 2.0, another weekly, called the film “heroic” for possessing “the best cinematic aura.”
It’s an unusual break for queer cinema and a seemingly overnight triumph for the gay community in a country that has long forced gays to hide in obscure neighborhoods, underground clubs and online chatrooms.
For many years, the position of Korean gay communities could be summed up by the words of Ennis Del Mar, the resigned ranch hand from “Brokeback Mountain” who says, “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it.”
“King and the Clown” attracted over 10 million viewers, becoming the first domestic film to openly portray homoerotic encounters, boldly referencing its gay subject in its Korean title, “The King’s Man.”
In the film, a ruthless king lusts after a male court jester who looks as vulnerable and feminine as the king’s jealous mistress.
The film’s star, Lee Jun-ki, who played the girly-clown, even inspired a new fashion trend of “flower boys,” which is also related to Japan’s subculture of yaoi, or gay romance comic books written for women.
Although there is a general consensus that the public is more open to gay films, not all critics agree.
“It’s unclear whether a film like ‘King and the Clown’ can be called a true gay film. The film had just enough gay scenes that the average audience wouldn’t feel challenged,” said Choi Seung-woo, a cultural critic.
Nam Dong-cheol, an editor at Cine 21, agrees, saying that it’s too early to see the mainstream success of gay films as a sign of growing tolerance towards homosexuality.
Others point out that “King and the Clown” was able to get away with a gay theme because it was a period drama set centuries ago, not an urban story set in contemporary Korean society.
“Last year during screenings of ‘The Most Beautiful Week of My Life,’ some people in the audience still laughed at the hugging scenes involving a gay couple,” says Mr. Nam. “There were a few fans of ‘My Own Private Idaho’ and ‘Happy Together’ but only because the actors and directors were famous. Ticket sales were low.”
“Gay films like ‘Road Movie’ and ‘River Runs to Tomorrow’ also failed. With ‘Brokeback’ the film delves into universal love. It takes an established genre and inserts gays. Just as many dramas use obstacles like death, war and social biases [to hinder the protagonists, this film uses the gay taboo].”
Also, Mr. Choi notes, “Homosexuality is a contemporary topic that’s less conventional, and has a commercial value because it’s new and refreshing.”
Local audiences also had a mixed reaction.
While viewers of “Brokeback” generally praised the performances and the screenplay, some still seemed indisposed by the subject.
“It’s moving, but it’s hard to admit it,” one viewer wrote on the Internet. Another said, “It shows a great landscape and tells a great love story, but I didn’t know it was a story about gays.”
Distributors are well aware of such social barriers.
“If the response had been unfavorable, we could always fall back on the film’s artistic side. After all, this is by Ang Lee. It’s a well-made movie,” notes Lee Sang-mu, a marketing assistant at CJ Entertainment, the distributor of “Brokeback Mountain.”
Wary of turning off moviegoers, the film’s importer intentionally obscured the true nature of the story in its promotional materials.
“Not once in posters or leaflets printed for public release did we mention the word ‘homosexuality,’” said Song Geun-hee, a representative of Baekdu Daegan, the local importer.
“Instead, we called it ‘love between two men,’ stressing the emotional encounters between humans. The nuance is different.”
by Park Soo-mee