Queer Korea, cinema as an element of resistance
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Let´s dive into Queer Korea Film Festival and the rough history of the LGBTQ+ community in South Korea. The history of the LGBTQ+ community in South Korea is complex. While in some countries, over the last years, important rights for this community have been conquered, in South Korea, the fight for visibility is still a big problem. It is not ironic given the amount of hate that k-pop masculine groups have been targeted for their aesthetic, which is very distant from the hereto-cis-patriarchal standards that are followed in West society. It is because of this that getting into the slippery world of queer cinema in South Korea is a very rugged task, even more, when being foreign.

It is because of this that getting into the slippery world of queer cinema in South Korea is a very rugged task, even more, when being foreign. Its complexity is due not only to the obvious difficulties of access because a lot of these productions are even unknown to South Koreans, or they are forbidden or very short-marketed. Films like Park Jae-ho Broken branches (1996) or Lee Hoon Mascara (1995), starred by a transgender actress, Ha Ji-Na, are rarely shown outside their targeted niche.

The conquest of spaces for visibility is something that it has still been working on, although that battle is not easy to win. Even though homosexuality in South Korea is not illegal, sexual minorities have not been included in any legal bill and are not even recognized by the Government administration.

Every male between 18 and 35 in South Korea must serve in the army. This fact compels every individual to register their gender on their ID cards and family legal documents, meaning a great problem for trans people.

In March 2021, Byun Hee-Soo —the first South Korean transgender soldier— killed herself after being discharged by the army due to changing her gender. Her case was considered a “mental and physical disability”. Publicly acknowledging oneself as a homosexual in the army means immediate discharge and that person is considered non-eligible. This has strong consequences that even stand in the way of getting a job.

And if we add to it that the very foundations of the country were laid down by Confucianism, which considers marrying and having children to be a civil obligation, things turn to be very complicated.

Queer Korea and the reality of North Korea

Things are not less complicated in North Korea, since homosexuality is considered to be a moral offense to North Koreans. Paraphrasing North Korean refugee Jang Yeong-Jin, homophobia on both sides of the border relegates the LGBTQ+ community to a “double extraterrestrial” condition. This situation is portrayed in the romantic film Bungee Jumping of Their Own (2001), by director Kim Dae-Sungen, where the violent threat of rejection imposes the devastating choice of seeing their romance as an existential engagement. The film ends with the two lovers killing themselves, hoping to reincarnate into a heterosexual couple so that they can get back together.

Nonetheless, and despite how heartbreaking this outlook might appear, the situation is slowly improving as the new generation has shown to be much more open-minded.

However, the LGBTQ+ community in South Korea has always had a strong relationship with the cinema industry. The seventh art has been one of the privileged spaces in which the LGBTQ+ community could get more visibility. That is how we find some iconic films like  The Seashore Village (1965), The Pollen of Flowers (1972), and the erotic film Sabangji (1988) which is the first South-Korean film to portray an intersexual character, played by actress Lee Hye-young.

With the development in cinematography production in the country and the weariness of films that fit into the standards of “respectable queer”, we find some more bold films like Yellow Hair (1999), Road Movie (2002), or No Regret (2006); where feelings are no longer tamed, but fully expressed. The main characters of these films feel love, hate, and jealousy and they even kill for love. Affections then turn into an emotional bomb about to explode.

Our Body (2018), and House of Hummingbird (2018), among others, dig purposely into the deconstruction of the masculine view and its predominant presence in the scene. There are even films like the unforgettable by Lee Hyun-Ju, Our Love Story (2016), in which they faced the challenge of handling queer sex and pleasure from a feminine and feminist point of view.

One of the most iconic films of queer cinema is The Handmaiden (2016) due to a much more explicit portrayal of sex and the use of extravagant cinematic means. The film is set in the Japanese occupation in the 30s and tells the torrid story between Sok-Hee, a pickpocket, and the mysterious Lady Hideko. This film even has some elements from pornographic cinema.

Queer Korea - The Handmaiden (2016)

Some numerous short films and documentaries belong to the queer universe, which has also encouraged to address of a wide variety of LGBTQ+ themes: Auld Lang Syne (2008) includes the sexual experience in senior individuals; Miracle on Jongno Street (2011) tackles activism and Gods Daughter Dances (2020) tells the story of a trans dancer who must endure compulsory military service.

These kinds of audio-visual productions receive great support from the community, and they normally hold a place in events like the Seoul International Pride Film Festival, the Korean Queer Film Festival, the Seoul International Women’s Films Festival, or Seoul Independent Film Festival.

It is interesting how even many Latin-American short films have taken place on these billboards. As it happens, in the 2020 edition of the Korean Queer Film Festival we find the short film Playback (2019), by director Agustina Comedy.

Translated by Luciano Ibañez