Jun 2016 VOL.62


  • Is It OK with You for Us to Love?
  • by SONG Soon-jin / 06.28.2016

  • Family Tree of Korean Queer Cinema

    PARK Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden has attracted over 4 million admissions as of June 26th. The Handmaiden was invited to the competition at Cannes Film Festival and has been a constant newsmaker in the Korean film scene right from the planning stage. One of the issues has to do with its queer aspect: The Handmaiden is one of the very few successful commercial domestic queer films, and it has certainly expanded the scope of Korean queer cinema by featuring female leads.

    Korean Queer Cinema, from the Shadow to Sun Light
    It took more than 10 years for domestic queer cinema to hold up as a commercial genre. Korean queer cinema has been produced in the form of independent or short film until the 2000s, including Road Movie (2002) of KIM In-shik, featuring HWANG Jung-min, the winner of several prizes at film events including Busan International Film Festival and The Blue Dragon Awards; and Camellia Project (2005) of LEESONG Hee-il, SO Joon-moon and CHOI Jin-sung.

    Back then, it was hard to believe that queer cinema would one day step in the commercial scene. What broke such bias was King And The Clown (2005) by LEE Joon-ik. Leading the narrative with a gay couple, King And The Clown made number one in the all time box office back then, with 12.3 million viewers, since its release in December 2005.


    This film took a kind of diversion strategy, where the gay couple is in the center of the film but explicit sexual description is avoided. Set in the King Yonsan era, featuring a love story of clowns Gong-gil and Jang-seng, where Gong-gil is finally killed by King Yonsan, this film was released as PG-13. In other words, it was the most popular approach possible at that time.


    On the other hand, YOO Ha (director of Spirit Of Jeet Keun Do - Once Upon A Time In High School) took a different path. With A Frozen Flower (2008), he audaciously took the queer code into the erotic adult movie genre. Wearing the form of period film like King And The Clown, this film featured the love story of the King and his warrior Hong-lim as the main gear of the film, set in the chaotic late Goryeo era, in a love triangle of the King, Hong-lim and the queen from Yuan. It also made great news that it featured star actors like ZO In-sung and JOO Jin-mo. A Frozen Flower received 3.74 million admissions.


    No Regret (2006) by LEESONG Hee-il is also a memorable film in Korean queer cinema. LEESONG has been in the center of Korean queer cinema from his short film debut Always Like Sunday (1998) to Night Flight (2014) invited to Berlinale; and in No Regret he showed a desperate love of two young men.


    Featuring gay sex industry, closet gay and detailed sexual description, that were only possible because it was an independent film, No Regret attracted more than 43,000 viewers, which is a record in Korean independent queer cinema. It was a remarkable success considering that Road Movie only had 16,000 viewers.

    The Handmaiden, featuring a Love Story of Two Women.

    Several years have passed since No Regret, and here comes The Handmaiden. Generating a heated fandom based on SNS, The Handmaiden is all the more meaningful in that it has expanded the scope of Korean queer cinema.

    From Road Movie to King And The Clown, from No Regret to A Frozen Flower, Korean queer cinema has mostly depicted male personas. Some queer films do feature women as the lead, as in Memento Mori (1999) and A Girl at My Door (2014). Our Love Story (2016), the Grand Prize winner of the Korean Competition at Jeonju International Film Festival this year, is also a queer movie featuring a lesbian couple.



    However, The Handmaiden is the only commercial queer film to feature women as the main personae and explicit sexual depiction. Djuna, a film critic, assertes that 2016 will be an interesting year in the Korean queer film history, pointing out that The Handmaiden, produced with big commercial budget, is making a great success, and at least 3 more queer films featuring women leads are to appear this year.


    In addition, Djuna adds that the engine to boost The Handmaiden’s success is the global female queer cinema including Blue is the Warmest Color and Carol, rather than Korean queer cinema. “For male queer cinema, there are the directors who have made coming out; the films that directly support their arguments; and the audience who consumes these movies like a genre film. Korean female queer cinema does not have any of those. Of course there are very few of them, as well,” says Djuna, and goes on to add: “The Handmaiden and Our Love Story both are under the influence of global female queer cinema that has started from Cannes Film Festival, including Blue is the Warmest Color and Carol.”


    To be sure, the success of Blue is the Warmest Color and Carol have stimulated the interest in female queer film, based on the warm reception of female spectators. Blue is the Warmest Color, released in 2014 and having scored 50,000 accumulated viewers, and Carol, released in February this year and having reached 310,000 viewers, both remind us of Brokeback Mountain, which has greatly influenced Korean queer cinema. This film of Ang LEE, released in 2006 in Korea, received 340,000 admissions, delivering the queer code in the domestic film industry.


    Then, how much further will the waves of The Handmaiden go (in Korean female queer cinema), which is equivalent to King And The Clown and A Frozen Flower for the male queer cinema? Perhaps female queer cinema could be a trend in the Korean film industry for quite a while. Laurel by Peter Sollett, booked for July release, is one representative example. Our Love Story is also to be released in the second half of the year. 


    It is not clear if the great performance of The Handmaiden will lead to the popularity of Our Love Story. However, it looks certain that The Handmaiden will increase the interest and expectations of Korean filmmakers in queer cinema.

  • Comment