August 2009: You wait fifty years for a gay Korean film and then three come along at once... Following The King and the Clown and No Regret (reviewed below) comes another historical epic where a monarch is more attracted to a handsome male than to his female consort. In this case it's the nameless king (played by Joo Jin Mo) who prefers to share his bed with Hong Lim, his bodyguard (Jo In Sung) than with his wife (Song Ji Hyo).
All would be well, except that the king needs an heir and he's unable to do the necessary deed. Solution? Get Hong Lim to do it for him. Unforeseen complication? Sex with the Queen is acceptable; falling in love isn't...
What to make of A Frozen Flower (Ssang-hwa-jeom)? It's competent, well-made melodrama on every level -
acting, direction, design, editing - a typical East Asian historical film without the martial arts. Nice to look at, but without the emotional depths of its predecessor The King and the Clown.
Final verdict? Worth catching if it's on at your local arts cinema or in your dvd store, but it won't make world's hundred best films. As for the title: a traditional Korean reference to heterosexuality, apparently; well, it's more poetic than the British equivalents of bonk and shag...
marks out of 10:
social interest: 6
gay interest: 7
film quality: 7 IMDb entry
The King and the Clown
November 2008: In sixteenth century Korea a band of strolling players entertains the inhabitants of a small town. The centrepiece is part bawdy comedy, part acrobatics as handsome Jang Saeng (Woo-Seong Kam, pictured left) jests with pretty androgynous Gong Gil (Jun-Gi Lee, pictured right) playing the woman's role.
Gong Gil attracts the attention of a local noble. Jang Saeng objects and the two of them have to flee for their lives. Arriving in Seoul, they join up with three mediocre players and Jang Saeng comes up with the outrageous idea of performing a comedy that mocks Yonsan, the tyrant king (Seong-Yeon Kang, pictured centre).
The King and the Clown (Wang-ui namja - which literally
translates as The King's Man) was a surprise hit when it opened in South Korean cinemas in late 2005.
famous stars and with overtly gay subject matter in a country where homosexuality is still the subject of strong taboo, the film was widely praised.
This is partly because film's vision encompasses not only a gay relationship, but a panoramic view of mediæval Korea, the tensions of palace intrigues and the lives of traditional players. These players, always male, were a feature of rural life as late as the second half of the twentieth century. Poor and transient, they were more likely to find be partners with each other than with women, forming strong emotional and sometimes sexual relationships, one partner usually traditionally male, the other, biri, long-haired, delicate and effeminate.
Thus the relationship between Jang Saeng and Gong Gil that forms the heart of the film remains understated. We see the emotion that binds them, we see them sleep together but we never see them kiss or make love - and if we are wise, we do not want to do so. This is not a film about sex, but a film about love, and at the end of the day love always takes precedence.
The King and the Clown is a moving, many-layered film, sumptously photographed and with compelling performances not just from the leading actors, but from every member of the cast. It flows with ease from comedy to drama, from the personal to the political, from the mundane to the mighty. See it in a cinema or in a darkened room with your phone switched off, your computer screen dark and tissues to hand - you might need them.
April 2008: The closest I have come to Korea is a two-hour stopover at Seoul airport fifteen years ago, followed by six months with a Korean lodger in London, who was torn between gay life in Europe and his wife and young son in a small town back home. I also suffered Rain fever in Bangkok - the popstar, that is, not the meteorological phenomenon, when for a few months while I lived there it seemed that no advertisement on Thai streets or television was permitted without the imprimatur of his angelic countenance.
So I'm no authority on gay life in the RoK. Years ago my lodger suggested there were no gay bars outside Seoul and Busan and the few men who visited them lived in a twilight world where long term relationships were rare and gloom was the norm. Since he was my only informant
and was deep in the closet - and I had heard no rumours of out, vibrant Korean gays - I assumed that his depiction was more or less true.
The 2006 film No Regret (Huhwihaji anha aka No Regrets) did little to suggest otherwise. Su-Min (played by Young-Hoon Lee) is an 18 year old orphan who travels to Seoul to find work and ends up as a rent-boy. There rich businessman Jae-Min (Han Lee) falls in love with him. Su-Min is reluctant, but when Jae-Min persists, he changes his mind - only to find that Jae-Min is being pressured by his parents to marry. Meanwhile, Ga-Ran (I couldn't find the name of the actor), who was in love with Su-Min when they lived together in the orphanage, comes to the big city and, when he finds that Su-Min is no longer interested in him, becomes a police captain's toyboy, with disastrous results.
One of the characters - young, heterosexual and male - seems unfazed by the fact that his roommate is gay, but all the rest, gay and straight, either express or imply that a man who falls in love with another man is destined for misery. Sure, horny men can meet in a private karaoke lounge - in this case with the unsubtle moniker of Xlarge - where they can sing and drink and the paid companion can dance around in his ultra-white underwear, but that seems to be the full extent of the commercial gay scene from this film's perspective.
Comments on the web suggest that this film is a step forward for RoK gays in that makes them visible to the society in which they live. Every nation comes to this point at some time in its life - compare The Boys in the Band, one of the first plays and films to show gay men to a broad American audience with its collection of self-hating failures. No Regret may get low marks for optimism and political correctness, but that's beside the point. Many other features redeem the film, quite apart from the fact that the main characters are played by handsome actors who often remove their shirts and trousers...
The plot is simple - young men meet and fall in love - but the sensitive script, direction and acting all combine to draw the audience in to this story. We start with Su-Min's perspective; we sympathise with his poverty and his solitude and while a more extravert sex worker might leap at the chance to be the lover of a young captain of industry, we understand his reserve and reluctance to get involved with someone who apparently wants to control him with money.
In time, however, Su-Min is won over and our attention is drawn towards Jae-Min, whose will is crushed by his family - an almost irrelevant phenomenon in the West but still an awesome power in much of the East. We both despise Jae-Min and feel for him, and that emotion turns to fear when Su-Min's anger turns against him. By the end of the film, however, we feel for both characters and forgive them both their flaws.
And we feel their love. In the Occident, where we are all out and proud, where gay bars and businesses flourish, where most of us can marry with the approval of family, friends and neighbours, where gay sex is everywhere, love appears cheap and easily replaced. For Su-Min and Jae-Min, however, it appears that this is their only chance of happiness. If it fails, the future holds only the relentless pawing of drunken clients for Su-Min and the cold dead hand of marriage for Jae-Min. This love is not given; it is earned. It is precious and frighteningly fragile.
As screenwriter and director Lee Song-Hee-Il creates a sombre film, following a dreamlike opening sequence portraying perhaps the only moment in Su-Min's life when he was truly happy. The soundtrack is bare - the characters live in a busy city, but all you hear are their conversations and occasionally the mood is enhanced by a notes on piano or guitar. Occasionally a scene in a factory or on the street shows strangers who have no part in the film, but mostly we see only Su-Min and Jae-Min, Ga-Ran and the others who work in the windowless karaoke. The mood is consistent, except for a jarring ten minutes near the end, when the director borrows a gruesome scene from some generic horror film. Fortunately the final scene returns us to the poetry that has preceded it.
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