In recent years, gay male characters have been featured in South Korean television and cinema—and even in a commercial or two. Movies like The King and The Clown and A Frozen Flower and the television shows Coffee Prince and Life is Beautiful have proven popular with audiences, even as the social reality has been slow to catch up. In 2009, the independent film Just Friends, directed by Kim Joh Kwang-soo, who is openly gay, made it past the film festival barrier and was released in theaters. But while some progress has been made in terms of mainstream representations of gay men in South Korea, there has not yet been a similar leap where mainstream representations of lesbians are concerned.
This is not for lack of options. A growing number of female directors have been producing short films and documentaries addressing lesbian life in Korea. But these films have mostly traveled the film festival circuit, while lesbian characters and storylines have not yet cropped up in a significant way in mainstream media.
There was a sense that this year might have been a turning point. Ashamed, a feature-length film by Kim Soo-hyun, a male director, about two women who inadvertently begin a romantic relationship, was screened at the prestigious Busan International Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival in 2010 before being prominently showcased at the Seoul LGBT Film Festival in 2011. The initial hype surrounding the film suggested that it might make it into mainstream theaters, but ultimately, the film was panned by critics both inside and outside of Korea.
This film was not the first instance of lesbianism being portrayed in works by heterosexual writers or directors. Lesbian characters—or more precisely, sexual encounters between women—have popped up in a number of movies, and there are also examples of such encounters in Korean literature. But they differ from lesbian-authored works in that they tend to be limited to sexual depictions and do not necessarily include any consideration of what lesbianism as an identity means in the Korean context or what queer Korean women themselves consider to be important.
Compared to the few mainstream portrayals of Korean lesbians, the short independent films that have been coming out of South Korea’s film festivals—including the International Women’s Film Festival in Seoul, the Seoul LGBT Film Festival, and the Seoul Human Rights Film Festival—generally take a more creative and authentic approach to the topic. The films at this year’s Seoul LGBT Film Festival included Kyung Ji-Suk’s Chupachups, in which a woman visits a childhood friend to give her a wedding invitation and confess her long-held love; Jang Jin-ho’s Someday, a reverse narrative about two women who fall in love, move in together, and decide to start a family; and Unzery’s Oh! Wonderful Korea! about a relationship between a prostitute and a female migrant worker.
Previous years’ films have included Bae Su-kyong’s Keep Walking, in which two women explore the challenges of living together and the need for lesbian community, and the groundbreaking documentary Out: Smashing Homophobia Project, which was particularly notable in that it featured three high school-aged girls talking about their lives as queer teenagers in South Korea.
In literature, a small number of pulp fiction titles have been published by Haeul, South Korea’s first and only LGBT publishing company, and short fiction is also produced and published online by writers working anonymously and presumably for no pay. The Internet has been a watershed for the queer community, as South Korea’s fast and ubiquitous Internet access has enabled people to communicate and organize anonymously online.
But the anonymity that enables this work may also be a barrier to gaining mainstream attention. Some of the lesbian directors who have participated in film festivals submitted their work under pseudonyms, and Haeul’s lesbian titles are likewise published under pen names. In the blogosphere as well, and even in face-to-face contact, many Korean lesbians choose to conceal their real names.
For while the Internet has sped up community organizing, it has also proven to be one of the chief sources of bullying. When public figures have come out in Korea, the reaction has tended to be swift and brutal. In 2008, the actor Kim Ji-hoo outed himself on television. Immediately after, his Web site was flooded with hate speech, and several months later, he committed suicide.
Furthermore, online anonymity is not complete. In order to use most South Korean websites, netizens are required to register via a real-name system. Purportedly installed to reduce cybercrime, the system has at times been more of a deterrent to those with a true need for anonymity. Censorship, as well, has been an issue, following the passage of the Internet Content Filtering Ordinance in 2001, which can block access to websites deemed to be “harmful to youth.” When the film Just Friends was first released, the Korea Media Rating Board gave it an “18+” rating to prevent teenagers from watching it, despite the young age of the characters, citing “risk of imitation.”
Given the real-name system and government censorship, as well as the no-holds-barred nature of online bullying, it is perhaps unsurprising that so many in the queer community insist on anonymity, even while actively pursuing the production of queer culture on and offline.
For now, gays and lesbians in South Korea live and work under a dual system: privately out of and publicly in the closet. But there is nevertheless a growing sense that change is underway. Five or six years ago, most of the marchers in Seoul’s LGBT Pride Parade wore masks and sunglasses to hide their faces. This year, not a single marcher was masked.
One of the films in this year’s LGBT film festival seemed to express this feeling best in its title: Someday. 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 “true” and refused the teacher’s attempts to correct her. While the teacher is berating the child’s mother, the “other mother” quietly enters and takes a seat. The teacher looks up and is left speechless.
In the silence of that moment, the film seems to offer a vision of a possible future and a succinct statement in response to the question of where South Korea stands vis-à-vis its queer female citizens and what the possibilities are for this vibrant and strengthening community.