This weekend I managed to carve out a little time to take in some movies at the queer film festival. I was able to see a couple of foreign films and a bunch of Korean ones. I’ll give some brief thoughts below, but first, the festival runs until Wednesday at the Seoul Art Cinema in the Nagwon Arcade next to Insa-dong. Tickets are available for purchase online or at the box office.
So, film festivals. I’m trying to think of a good analogy for how film festival marathons make me feel, but so far all I’ve come up with is transoceanic flights. They’re exciting at first because you think you’re going to be transported somewhere really new and different, but several hours into it, you’re sitting there in the dark, your butt aching and the backs of your legs numb from those stupid chairs (is it the fabric? it feels like it’s the fabric that’s causing me pain), and you’re whispering into your cupped hands for it to just end already. And the more often you buy those tickets, the harder it is to make it to the end.
This time around, it wasn’t until hour five of my film marathon that I started to enjoy myself.
The first film I saw would probably be really, really interesting to someone who is either new to lesbianism or new to lesbian films. Being new to neither, I have to admit that I got really bored. I don’t actually want to bash the film since I think they did an okay job (and just needed to do some more editing), so I’ll speak in broad strokes. But basically, when did lesbianism turn into one nonstop dialogue about wanting to make babies? Not all of us want babies. Some of us just want to watch movies about cool lesbians doing cool things in cool cities and towns around the world. Please, please someone make another movie quick that isn’t about babies. My other complaint about the movie was that it was too openly didactic. The first scene is set in a bar… but it’s a scene of women talking about heteronormative gender roles and bi-phobia. *Yawn* It’s a movie. Show me. Don’t tell me. On the plus side, the movie does open up a dialogue about adoption rights and support for single mothers. Given that the movie is set in Hong Kong, that felt like a fresh perspective on the issue, especially considering how stereotyped Asians are when it comes to adoption and single parenting.
The second film I saw was “창피해” (“Ashamed”), which got a lot of hype at the women’s film festival and has been promoted online. It’s supposed to be the first feature-length “lesbian film” in Korea featuring 김꽃비 (Kim Kkobbi) and 김효진 (Kim Hyojin), who are not queer.
I wanted to like this film. I even got up early in order to get to the box office when it opened so I could get a ticket. So how can I explain…? Let me put it this way. When not only the director himself (yes, HIMself) repeatedly refers to his own movie as “boring,” but even the MC who is facilitating the Q&A after the movie refers to it as boring, you know something’s wrong.
The basic premise of the movie wasn’t bad. It was even cute in a potential romantic comedy/road movie kind of way. But there was just too much going on. The movie is told through multiple frames. It opens in an art school, followed by an art trip to the beach. The bulk of the story is told through a series of flashbacks, through which we are presumably learning how one of the characters, Ji-woo, “becomes” a lesbian. Basically, before she was a lesbian, she was a disgruntled department store employee who decided to stage a faux suicide using a mannequin. But because she is a complete idiot, she drops the mannequin into oncoming traffic and is completely shocked and surprised when it hits, you know, a CAR. Even more surprising, the car flips over. Meanwhile, a woman is caught pickpocketing on the subway by a police officer. But before he can arrest her, he’s stabbed in the stomach by some guys, who then run with the pickpocket to a waiting car. Their car is the one that is hit by the mannequin. I can only assume the guys die in the accident because we never see them again. As for the cop, he shows up almost immediately at the scene of the crash to arrest both women and take them out for noodles (I know, I know). But don’t worry, he was “only stabbed a little”.
The one endearing moment of this film is right after the accident when the women are handcuffed together because the cop only has one pair of cuffs. They sneak off together and break into a butcher shop to try to saw the handcuffs off. But the scene is cut short when the cop catches up to them. Apparently, no one in Seoul owns a pair of bolt cutters, because after eluding the cop again, the two women have to travel way way out into the countryside to have a Buddhist monk magically remove their cuffs (but after the mannequin girl somehow manages to completely remove her dress and put it back on again around the handcuff, and only after the pickpocket has sex with some guy while still cuffed to the other girl).
With all of its annoying flashbacks and endless parade of characters, the movie could have been doable if there were a clear stylistic/visual transition between the scenes (“The Science of Sleep”, for example, did an excellent job of this), and if the characters were well-developed. But instead, there were far too many different characters on screen, none of which were likable or understandable including the main characters, unless maniacal grinning and slow (so very slow) doe-eyed blinking equals character development.
Overall, the characters struck me as stereotypical. There’s the predatory domineering teacher, the predatory bisexual nympho, and the oh-so-naive straight girl who gets converted to lesbianism because it makes her “feel like a real woman”. Because that’s totally how it happens.
During the Q&A, the director commented that the audience at the film festival reacted very differently to his film than other audiences, which the MC more or less clarified as meaning gay vs. non-gay audiences. The gay audience laughed, a lot, at his film, including at scenes that were maybe not intended to be funny. He seemed to appreciate this, though I think it has more to do with how campy the film was. While watching it, I couldn’t help thinking of Showgirls (but without all the boobs).
Overall, the problem with this film is that there was an interesting story buried and suffocated within a barely tolerable narrative structure. The film would have been far more entertaining if the director had gone with the road movie premise and portrayed the two women’s attraction as developing a little more naturally and authentically (and, dare to imagine, ending happily).
Fortunately, the last films I saw were very, very good. There were four short films grouped together: “Lesbian Factory,” produced by the Taiwan International Worker’s Association (TIWA); “Someday” (언젠가), a short Korean film; “Chupachups” (너희 결혼식, 나의 결혼식), a short Korean film; and “Cross Your Fingers,” a short film set in London. “Lesbian Factory” was intended to be about Filipina migrant workers in a Taiwanese factory, but when the director realized how many of the women were lesbian couples, she focused on that angle. It was charming and very revealing about the situation of migrant workers in Taiwan, as well as lesbian couples in the Philippines.
“Chupachups” is about a woman named Seongju who returns to her childhood home to visit an old friend, Sin-hui. They spend the day together, and at one point, Sin-hui discovers a wedding invitation in Seongju’s coat. Just before they part, Seongju confesses her love for Sin-hui. Though it was very short, I thought it really captured some of the more heartbreaking aspects of being queer in Korea–the silence, the pressure to marry, the distance between those who make it out of their hometowns and those who get left behind.
“Cross Your Fingers” could have used a little more exposition regarding the characters’ identities. It’s unfortunate when the summary of the film in the festival booklet is more revealing than the film itself. Basically this one is about a budding friendship between an immigrant nail shop worker and an adoptee who is drawn to her. But it never goes any further than that.
Finally, “Someday” was my overall favorite. I thought it had the right amount of drama to suit a certain “Korean sensibility”, and it revealed story and character without being too expository. The director even used a nontraditional narrative structure, but to what I thought was great effect. The film opens on a parent-teacher meeting in an elementary school. The child’s mother has been summoned to discuss the fact that her child incorrectly answered a question on a personality test that asked, “True or false: I was born to two women.” The child answered yes and continued to insist on it despite the teacher’s attempt to “correct” her. While the teacher is arrogantly droning on, the “other mother” quietly enters and takes a seat next to her child. From there, the movie takes us back in time to show us how the child was conceived (I’ll give nothing away except to say that it struck me as SO Korean drama), and before that how the two girls fell in love. I adored the play on words in the title and how it ties in both the reverse-narration and the larger message about how this too will happen “someday” in Korea. I thought it was a great example of how you can take a social issue and relate it in an appealing way without forcing anything down the viewers’ throats, boring them to tears, or being hyper-melodramatic.
So, as I said, the festival is still running for three more days, and the short films will be playing again on Tuesday at 5:50pm. Tickets are 5,000 won, and according to the festival booklet, festival-goers that day will have a chance at some free donuts. So, you know, win-win.