The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Jooran Lee’s seminal 2000 essay “Remembered Branches: Towards a Future of Korean Homosexual Film” begins with the assertion that “discussing Korean gay and lesbian films is like drifting in a space without sunlight or oxygen. One searches, blindly, gaspingly—and mostly in vain—simply trying to discover the existence of such films.” The gathering of these films into a holistic canon is almost as difficult an endeavor as the unearthing. Without theatrical releases or international festival runs, queer Korean films are still relatively obscure and elusive, especially for those who do not live in Korea. A copy of Han Hyung-mo's film Jealousy (1960), considered one of the earliest Korean films to display homoerotic behavior between women, remains missing.1 Other films, like Park Jae-ho’s Broken Branches (1996) and the late Lee Hoon's Mascara (1995)—which stars transgender actress Ha Ji-na and the director Park Chan-wook, a close friend of Lee—are rarely screened outside their designated niche.
Limited access compounds the taxonomical task of determining what qualifies as a queer Korean film. For some this equates to a hug, a kiss, a tearful confession of certain urges—something immediately perceptible but often skin-deep. Director Leesong Hee-il, one of South Korea’s preeminent gay filmmakers, has written that a queer film is only one wherein the protagonist clearly relates that they are gay. Those that prefer plain human rights advocacy over slice-of-life portraiture stress the political urgency at hand. Here I quote Jeong-min Kim, who asks: “Do films for understanding ‘homosexuals’ and queer films mean the same thing?”2 Whatever the exact object of pursuit, hunger secures an audience eager to support and to protect queer films. Even when Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997) was banned by Korean authorities, one could still attend an illegal screening of the film with student-made Korean subtitles in gay bars, nightclubs, and universities. (James Ivory’s Maurice  was banned for similar reasons, and only opened in Korean theatres in 2019.) But as this longing becomes desperate, the resulting lenience produces a tendency to count any occurrence of on-screen representation as a win or to downplay its shortcomings.
Despite a slow climb in the marketability of queerness, LGBTQ+ Koreans continue to face an uphill battle. Though homosexuality itself is not illegal, South Korea does not include sexual minorities in its anti-discrimination bill, acknowledge same-sex marriage (or any legal union between same-sex couples), permit the adoption of children by same-sex couples, or allow for consensual sexual activity between gay soldiers. In March, South Korea’s first transgender soldier, Byun Hee-soo, died of suicide, one year after the defense ministry ruled that she be compulsorily discharged for receiving gender reassignment surgery. Spurred on by Christian and Confucian values, conservatives accuse sexual minorities of spreading diseases and pro-North communism. An inversion of this attitude exists in North Korea, where homosexuality has been deemed a form of Western hedonism rife in the South and an attack on North Koreans’ “sound mentality and good morals.” In the words of North Korean refugee Jang Yeon-jin, homophobia on both sides of the border relegates LGBTQ+ Koreans to the status of a “double alien.” And as in Kim Dae-sung’s fantasy romance Bungee Jumping of Their Own (2001)—which concludes with the double suicide of bullied gay lovers who hope to be reincarnated as a heterosexual couple—the violent threat of rejection enforces the devastating choice to assimilate, itself an existential compromise.
The historicization of queer Korean cinema balances three goals: to enrich an understanding of LGBTQ+ Koreans in the past; to advocate for the rights of LGBTQ+ Koreans in the present; and to fight for a different future. Each helps to “[reflect and expand] queer Koreans’ realms of possibility,” which editor and translator Hoyoung describes as their own definition of queer Korean cinema. Historicization requires malleable expectations. In his introduction to the Korean Film Archive’s series from February 2021, In Search of Hidden Queer Film: Korean Queer Films from Before 1996, programmer Lee Dong-yoon states that looking into the past for an ideal queer film only narrows the parameters. The series invites attendees to partake in the discomforting operation of witnessing queerness where identitarian labels do not neatly apply: the tenderness between widows in The Seashore Village (1965), the Pasolini-esque psychosexual love pentagon of The Pollen of Flowers (1972); and the softcore pleasures of the ero film Sabangji (1988), the first Korean film to depict an intersex character (played by the actress Lee Hye-young), to name only a few.
Nuanced reappraisals of once-overlooked films bolster the contention that queerness has always persisted throughout Korean cinema history. In her study of Shim Wu-seob’s Male Kisaeng (1968), one of several “gender comedy” films from the late 1960s, Chung-kang Kim uncovers the subtext evident even in a lowbrow subgenre.3 The premise of Male Kisaeng (and its sequels Male Maid  and Male Hairdresser ) involves an unemployed man who finds work as a kisaeng, or female entertainer. His kisaeng persona attracts both women and men. Ambiguous sexual tensions dissipate when the man returns to his former self, having been enlightened to his true calling: to serve as the head of the family. The gender comedy’s descendents have inherited both the punchlines and the catch. In the comedy Lady Daddy (2009), a transgender woman named Ji-hyeon (actress Lee Na-young) dons a wig and fake mustache to dupe the son she had prior to her transition. (The film’s Korean title, Father Likes Women, recalls the 1965 gender comedy I Prefer Being a Woman.) Lady Daddy is as paradoxical as the gender comedies that came before: After a week of pretending, Ji-hyeon returns the clueless child to his mother and her husband in sad surrender. Ji-hyeon returns to her flirty, breezy life as a photographer, having been dismissed from her parental duties. The film’s perplexing closing sequence finds her son speaking to an imaginary cisgender father who teaches him a life lesson she's no longer expected to teach: all men like women.
The bargain of inclusion dictates that one conform to an acceptable standard of queerness in exchange for societal recognition. In retaliation, some queer Korean films disavow respectability politics with bold expressions of what Kyungtae Kim calls “queer anarchism”—an affective resistance to the gay community and the state, which finds freedom in personal relationships.4 That rejection of authority swerves dangerously close to self-destruction, but therein lies the thrill. Refusing to be pacified or domesticated, the gay nomads and hitchhikers in Yellow Hair (1999) and Road Movie (2002) live out every feeling to its fullest. They envy convulsively, copulate viciously, and even kill for love. The two men in Leesong Hee-il’s No Regret (2006)—the first Korean feature directed by an openly gay filmmaker—stumble into love after a fistfight wherein they thrust their lust upon each other. Though shocking and raw, these films are not unpopular. Road Movie (which the critic Djuna described as unconvincing for a gay audience) won numerous awards. No Regret, a gay and gritty take on an intra-class romance, gained a fanbase of women known as “Regret-heads” who led the film to break box office records.5 (When asked about targeting female fans of gay media, director Kim-Jho Gwang-soo, who produced No Regret, replied: “[Young women] are the only group that finds a theater to see my movie. Why would I consider people who wouldn’t see my movie?”6) Ironically such successes have caused what was once welcome to now be thought of as cliché.
For a film of this sort to prove the extent of its defiance would require the alienation of the audience—a challenge at odds with conventional narrative devices. One exception is Kim Kyung-mook’s feature debut Faceless Things (2005), a sardonic ode to sadomasochism that makes its peers seem sexually tame and formally unambitious. It contains three scenes: two encounters, one in a hotel and the other in an excrement-smeared room; and a final shot in which the twenty-year-old director looks into the viewfinder of his camcorder as if reviewing the scenes prior. We as viewers are only permitted to see the surface of the fetish across bodies and waste, not the vulnerable desire beneath it. Park Sang-young’s novella The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta sums up the skepticism towards these films. During a dinner with a group of critics and directors at a Diversity Film Festival, a gay filmmaker thinks to himself:
“[Director Oh’s] prizewinning movie was a disaster. [...] I mean, the characters even cried after having gay sex. Why the fuck would two guys who love screwing guys cry after screwing a guy? [...] To them, queers were just a bunch of people who did sad and weird sex. They couldn’t imagine ordinary, cheerful queers, and if they had met one they’d think they were made-up. They never thought of queers as ordinary people.”
Song Soon-jin writes that many queer films made in the years after the release of No Regret “focused on characters that were haunted by their sexual identity or ostracized by society after coming out of the closet.” A new generation of Korean films about queer women have instead turned further inward. With deliberate quiet, they portray incremental developments in self-relation—the homoerotic codependency at the center of Han Ka-ram’s Our Body (2018); Eun-hee’s overlapping feelings for her boyfriend, female classmate, and female instructor in Kim Bora’s House of Hummingbird (2018). “Bisexuality just exists, so I depicted it,” Kim says. But Eun-hee does not think of herself as bisexual; she has crushes. In July Jung’s A Girl at My Door (2014), silence accentuates the fear induced by the precarious protection of the closet, the tenuous divide between private and public that makes coming out an ebb and flow rather than a one-time decision.
What these films foreground is the importance of being true to oneself through an inner turn away from heteronormative patriarchy. The shift coincides with the growing feminist movement and subsequent popularization of cine-feminism in South Korea, which critiques the male-dominated film industry and male-oriented film historiography in a country where “approximately 60 percent of theatre and film school students nationwide are women."7 Cine-feminist principles equate to the removal of men from the film’s epicenter, a decision that may sometimes reify other biases. If they appear at all, transgender characters (like the transgender women in E J-yong’s Bacchus Lady  and Cho Hyun-moon’s Jane ) lend limited support from the sidelines. Jane in particular asserts its titular transgender woman’s instrumentality by revealing her to be a fantasy conjured up—then killed off—by a lonely cisgender teenage girl.
Filmic efforts to deconstruct the male gaze face the theoretical question of what it means to film queer sex (and sexual pleasure) in a feminist fashion. When Yoon-joo backs out of sex in Lee Hyun-ju’s Our Love Story (2016), Ji-soo respects her decision. The two women have gentle consensual sex the next day, swathed in daylight and fully clothed. Although its handheld close-ups divulge very little, Our Love Story was rated “18+” for its subject matter. (Lee Hyun-ju has since retired from filmmaking after being found guilty of sexual assault. Like Leesong Hee-il and Jane director Cho Hyun-hoon, who were accused of sexual harassment, her case reminds us not to limit queer Korean cinema to the works of a few representatives.) The controversial sex scene in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016) is more explicit and stylistically extravagant. Filmed with spinning remotely-controlled cameras (and without any male crew members on set), it cuts between point-of-view shots of smiles between thighs, a contrast with Hideko’s joyless enactments of pornographic material for her uncle Kouzuki’s guests. Having separated sexual pleasure from an involuntary performance of it, Sook-hee and Hideko continue to borrow ideas from pornography after destroying Kouzuki’s collection.
Likened by some to Maurice, Lim Dae-hyung’s Moonlit Winter (2019) focuses on the debilitating consequences of hiding behind heteronormativity. The film follows Yoon-hee, a sorrowful single mother who harbors a painful secret. When Yoon-hee’s daughter Sae-bom discovers that this secret is Yoon-hee’s first love Jun, she immediately sets out to reunite the two women. Days after the meeting and in the privacy of a voiceover, Yoon-hee finally admits that there was nothing wrong with their love. In other words, she comes out to herself. Aware that audiences could confuse the film’s refined subtlety for vagueness, Lim declared at the Blue Dragon Awards: "Moonlit Winter is a queer film. I say this because some viewers might not know what kind of film it is.” The film closes as Yoon-hee’s new life starts. She quits her job, moves to a city far away from her ex-husband and older brother, and rekindles a passion for photography. Though alone, she treasures her memories guiltlessly. Much like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud, she has decided to hate regret and love love, that she can love at all.
Though queer Korean documentaries and short films receive far less attention abroad than narrative features, they receive strong local support and are regular fixtures at film festivals like the Seoul International Pride Film Festival, Korea Queer Film Festival, Seoul International Women’s Festival, Seoul Independent Film Festival, and Indieforum. Much has changed since the first Seoul Queer Films and Videos Festival in 1997, which was canceled on its opening day and shut down by the South Korean military. Autonomy from the studio system opens up greater opportunities to showcase the diversity of LGBTQ+ Koreans. This has included seniors (Auld Lang Syne ), HIV-positive gay men (Miracle on Jongno Street ), an ex-convict (Clean Me ), activist-choir singers (Weekends ), and a transgender dancer who must attend mandatory military examinations (God’s Daughter Dances ). There is also a greater depth in the topics discussed: in the newly-released short 132 Gaebi-wa Yeongi (2021), four lesbians drunkenly debate who's really allowed to be at the lesbian bar, where the drinks are expensive and the food is bad. Here one is more likely to find stories about those excluded by essentialist logic, such as transgender, non-binary, and intersex people. Additionally counted are drag performers, who are placed in the same lineage as yeoseong gukgeuk—a women-only genre of Korean opera most popular in the 1950s. Adored by female fans, the actors of this near-extinct theatrical form are featured in Kim Hye-jung’s documentary The Girl Princes (2013). The historical significance of drag is further explored in the upcoming crowdfunded documentary Drag x NamJangShinSa (“Gentleman Dressed as a Man”), about four older queer women who perform in a drag king musical inspired by queer Korean history.
Choi Hyun-jung’s documentary Being Normal (2002) consists of conversations between the filmmaker and her roommate J, an intersex man. Over three years their dialogues become arguments that extend to question whether or not J is lying, or if Choi is even a heterosexual woman. Recent queer Korean documentaries have maintained a more journalistic distance from their subjects, fastening sympathy to a firm political commitment. The three transgender men in Kim Il-rhan’s 3xFTM (2008) articulate very different opinions on what it means to be a man, but their path towards self-actualization is repeatedly undermined by a society that sees them as women. (One man is sued for omitting “girls'' from “girls’ secondary school” on his resume.) In the documentary Coming to You (2021) by Byun Gu, a gay man and a transgender man introduce these thoughts to their respective mothers, who in turn join an LGBTQ+ parents’ activist group. The community-oriented approach of these documentaries, which tend to focus on groups, is reflected in their production model. For instance, Lee Hyuk-sang’s Miracle on Jongno Street—the first documentary about gay men to be theatrically released in Korea—was co-produced by the gay men’s human rights group Chingusai (which produced Weekends) and the feminist documentary collective PINKS (which includes both Kim Il-rhan and Byun Gu-ri as members).
Produced by the feminist filmmaking group WOM DOCS, Lee Young’s Troublers (2015) connects the lives of four people: Lee Young, a lesbian documentary filmmaker; Ten and Non, a Japanese lesbian couple who marry following the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami; and Lee Muk, a 70-year-old baji-ssi or Mr. Pants—a term used by queer Korean women in the 70s and 80s. (Writer Ruin notes that the term cannot be easily translated into today’s categories. Lee Muk, who says they’ve never felt like a woman, could be a butch lesbian, a transgender man, or a genderqueer person.) Measured in tone and vast in scale, Troubler’s intimate interviews are bookended with scenes of anti-gay rallies. The real “troublers'' are those who sabotage political causes with homophobic rhetoric, form human barricades at Pride events, and protest against human rights bills in the name of God, the nation, and the family. One sign even claims that "opposing homosexuality is the best human rights campaign.”
Slurs and anti-communist insults escalate then subside into the soft sounds of home: Ten and Non preparing dinner in the kitchen; Lee Muk hand-washing their cherished binder, made of the same material as a traditional Korean skirt. Lee Muk reflects on the many women they loved who went on to marry men and have children. Lee Young shields her camera from angry homophobes, then thinks aloud about everyday resistance. Queer elders like Lee Muk have lived in precarity for decades without ever renouncing their identity. Young people like Ten, Non, and Lee Young follow in their footsteps. The film dignifies the will to survive but laments that survival contours every feeling, every action. In an unrelentingly intolerant culture queer Korean cinema continues to occupy an outsider position at once ignored by the mainstream and always affected by it. Marginality has yielded artistic experimentation and ideological boldness but it is still a wound, a mark of oppression. As Korean writer Louderaloud states: “To me, [queer Korean cinema] is named as such out of necessity. But the term is a modifier, not a genre, that I hope will eventually disappear.” The true objective is to imagine what lies beyond struggle.
Special thanks to Hoyoung, Louderaloud, Amarachukwu Modu, and others for their invaluable insights. Translations are my own.