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As South Korean historical drama films featuring homosexual romance transitioned from its state of underfunded indie obscurity to mainstream recognition, I began to question how queer sexualities and sex acts in these film narratives were conceptualized and interpreted. For example, Yu Ha’s 2008 period drama A Frozen Flower follows the tale of an unnamed king who forces his male lover to impregnate his wife, a story based on the historical figure King Gongmin of the late Goryeo Dynasty. Despite the historical background of the film being set in 14th-century Korea when the modern concept of “homosexuality” did not exist, South Korean moviegoers read the unnamed king’s character as unquestionably “gay”. More unusual was director Yu’s interview statement that King Gongmin was “transgender” because of his love for music, feminine attire and sexual relations with men. With such (mis)conceptions of sexuality and gender present in the growing number of queer Korean period films based not only on the Goryeo Dynasty but also Joseon and early 20th century, my interest in queer Korean film led me to travel back to my home country to conduct research on the ways in which these queer films utilize and reflect the ahistorical, essentialist Westernized concepts of sexualities and identities in contemporary South Korea.
To gain a better understanding of the historical figures and how homoeroticism and queer sexualities were understood during their time, my first visit was to Seoul National University Library in Gwanak-gu, Seoul. Of particular interest was Goryeosajeolyo, the annals of the Goryeo Dynasty, which chronicle the time during King Gongmin’s rule. The introduction to this famous king states that King Gongmin was a well-liked ruler who had the misfortune of falling into hedonism and perversion – namely fornication with his male subjects – following the tragic death of his queen. However, there is no evidence to suggest that homoerotic acts were connected to a sexual identity during the Goryeo Dynasty. Furthermore, although King Gongmin did play instruments, nowhere does it suggest that interest in music was associated with homoeroticism. In fact, scholars suggest that accounts of King Gongmin’s “homosexuality” and hedonism were exaggerated by Joseon historians who had an agenda to discredit the king in order to justify the ascendance of the Joseon Dynasty. In spite of all this, decades of media representation of the infamous King Gongmin portrays him as a noble “heterosexual” ruler who “became homosexual” due to his intense grief at having lost his beloved queen. Flower diverges from this tradition to portray him as a “true homosexual” by providing a scene where, despite the severe political pressure to produce an heir, he adamantly tells his wife that he “cannot lie with women”. In any case, these oversimplified narratives ignore the fact that King Gongmin later had a son by another woman and fail to provide factual basis for the idea that homoeroticism among men was even socially and morally condemned in Goryeo society. However, the film does allow some leeway for diverse interpretations of the characters as modern terms pertaining to sexual identity are excluded from the dialogue of the film.
To my surprise, I found that this absence of terms in the film text itself was also prevalent in contemporary films after analyzing many queer films at the Korean Film Archive (KOFA) located in Mapo-gu, Seoul. Take for example Road Movie (2002) where despite accusatory remarks such as “so you’re one of them?”, the term “gay” or “homosexual” is never brought up. While the main character Dae-shik cannot “get it up” for intercourse with Il-joo, the only woman in their initial road trip trio, it is later revealed that Dae-shik, a masculine man who frequently has sex with other men, has a young son by his ex-wife. Another example is Our Love Story (2016) where two female characters struggle to maintain their secret relationship while enduring the social pressure to find a husband. Once again, the term “lesbian” was omitted from the film. Although not all Korean queer films refrain from using specific terms that refer to sexual identities, many seem to implicitly acknowledge the difficulty of grafting Western labels onto South Korean identities.
To dig deeper into the unique aspects of South Korean queer film, I met with Kim Kyug-Tae, a recent PhD graduate whose dissertation was on the topic of homosexual relationships in contemporary Korean films. At a coffee shop near City Hall Station, Kim shared his thoughts on what sets South Korean films apart from their Western counterparts. He explained that, unlike Western films where coming-out scenes often symbolize independence, coming-out in a Korean film is seen as an act of rejecting and destabilizing the family unit. Because family is an important part of South Korean society, the negativity that stems from coming-out often dominates the narrative rather than grant liberation to the queer character. In the case of Two Sisters on the Road (2008), a film I saw for the first time at the 17th Korea Queer Film Festival in Sinsa-dong, revelations of queer identity were cut out in favor of an emphasis on family-related themes. During the Q&A session that followed the screening, Director Bu Ji-Young confirmed that more explicit scenes related to the mother and her MtF lover’s relationship had been scrapped in part due to concerns of pushback from conservative film market. Before we parted, I asked Kim his opinion on queer historical period films. After some thought, he suggested that the genre might offer up the potential of a new narrative space where contemporary obstacles of family and marriage are alleviated and Koreans films are able to push the boundaries of on-screen homoeroticism.
By the time my research abroad had come to an end, I had learned more about queer Korean film and history – my own culture and history – than I had ever thought possible. I look back on my summer in South Korea with a mixture of gratitude for the wonderful opportunity and excitement for what lies ahead. I plan to incorporate my findings in MA thesis on queer sexuality in South Korean film. I am eternally grateful for the help I received from everyone: Dr. Kim Kyung-Tae and Dr. Sohn Hee Jeong who graciously supported my research project; to Prof. McRuer for encouraging my project from the very beginning; to the lovely filmmakers, festival staff and audience members at the 17th KQFF; to everyone at SNU Library and KOFA; and, finally, to GW Institute for Korean Studies for making my research abroad a reality. Thank you all for an unforgettable summer experience!