Country: South Korea
Director: Leesong Hee-il
Screenplay: Leesong Hee-il
Cinematography: Yoon Ji-Yoon (Baekya)
Cast: Won Tae-hee, Li Yi-kyung (Baekya); Kim Young-jae, Han Joo-wan (Jinanyeoreum, Gapjagi); Kim Jae-heung, Chun Shin-hwan (Namjjokeuro Ganda)
Runtime: 75 min, 37 min, 45 min
Trailers: see below
Seen at the 27th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival at two separate screenings.
Although there was not all that much on offer from South East Asia at this year’s London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, the BFI did do a mini-feature on Leesong Hee-il, whom they called “one of the most exciting contemporary gay Asian directors” in their festival programme. Leesong has, by now, quite a number of films to his name, all featuring a gay storyline in one way or another. His cinematic debut came in 2004 with a short featured in 동백꽃 (Dongbaegkkoch/ Camellia Project, 2004), but he is probably better known for his 2006 film 후회하지 않아 (Huhoehaji Anha/No Regret). In 2009 the director contributed to the 황금시대 (Hwang-geumsidae/Short! Short! Short!) omnibus project and also made the feature-length 탈주 (Talju/Break Away, 2009), finally following up in 2012 with the ‘One Night and Two Days’ trilogy of 백야 (Baekya/White Night), 지난여름, 갑자기 (Jinanyeoreum, Gapjagi/Suddenly, Last Summer) and 남쪽으로 간다 (Namjjokeuro Ganda/Going South), three unconnected stories which all began as shorts but the first of which was later extended into a 75-minute movie.
What the films of this Leesong trilogy share is a dichotomy in the relationships at the heart of each tale, each with one character either concealing or completely in denial about his homosexuality, and another significantly more at ease with it.
백야 (Baekya/White Night)
Note: Baekya had its European premiere at the 2013 Berlinale where it screened in the Panorama section. It has been working the international film festival circuit, with showings in Vancouver, Hong Kong and Jeonju.
In Baekya, Won-gyu (Won Tae-hee), who works as a pilot for a German airline returns to South Korea after an extended absence of two years, but only intends to stay for a single night. Haunted by a homophobic assault from his past, he grapples with the South Korean society’s judgement of homosexuality and escapes by living constantly in transit. His home are anonymous and ever-changing hotel rooms, his connections to people are temporary and rootless. It is with this intention of a completely non-committal encounter that he meets Tae-jun (Lee Yi-Kyung, a familiar face from K-drama 학교 2013/ Hakkyo 2013/ School 2013) whom he knows from chat websites. While Tae-Jun is a few years younger and has a less esteemed and much lower-paying job as a motor bike courier, he is much more comfortable in his own skin, including with his sexual preferences. He does not want sex just for the sake of it and, even if not per se opposed to a one-night stand, harshly rejects Won-gyu, seeking a more meaningful connection than a romp in a dark public toilet on top of an empty hill. With the night only having just begun, these two nearly-strangers however continue to gravitate towards each other. Tae-jun learns, bit by bit, about Won-gyu’s painful memory, while the latter, perhaps for the first time ever, sees an individual that just accepts himself as he is and refuses to run away: “I will live here,” Tae-jun states emphatically, “and I will live here well”.
Won-gyu’s internal conflict is brought to the fore by an external one when he runs into someone from his past. This climax comes surprisingly early, not quite to the benefit of the narrative, reminding viewers that Baekya also started as a short and, perhaps, might have done even better to remain one. Furthermore, some of Tae-jun’s actions, particularly his choice to stick with Won-gyu, whom he barely knows and who exhibits some rather erratic and later also violent behaviour, for the night are not quite understandable. Whatever it is that keeps pushing Tae-jun back to Won-gyu’s side – sexual attraction, sympathy, pity – his presence is what offers the latter a chance to heal and realise that a different reality may be possible: that there may be hope and reason for him to return to South Korea more than once every few years, for more than a single night.
지난여름, 갑자기 (Jinanyeoreum, Gapjagi/Suddenly, Last Summer)
Significantly shorter at 37 minutes, Jinanyeoreum, Gapjagi raises a number of difficult questions, as it is not just the characters’ sexuality that is the focus here. Kyung-hoon (Kim Young-jae), age 35, is a teacher and hides the fact that he is homosexual from probably most around him, but certainly from the people at his workplace. Unfortunately for him Sang-woo (Han Joo-wan), a student of his, has discovered the secret, having run into him in a gay bar. Sang-woo is threatening to reveal it all with the help of some clandestinely captured pictures from that encounter unless Kyung-hoo agrees to spend the day with him. Fearing for his job, Kyung-hoo is forced to comply, but the tension between the characters may be due to more than Sang-woo’s blackmailing tactics: there is a suggestion that the teacher has feelings for his student. Sang-woo, who is forthright about his own sexual preferences (he reveals he already told his mother in middle school that he liked boys) as well as his love for the older man, insinuates as much, but Kyung-hoo’s reactions are ambiguous and non-transparent.
There is an uneasy polarity within each character. Sang-woo’s youth comes with a certain innocence and the freedom to be, and be happy: to lose himself in the moment and yell at fish in the water with excitement, to act spontaneously and place his headphones over Kyung-hoon’s ears, temporarily transporting him into another world, less controlled by society and by laws. Sang-woo however is also immature, seemingly unaware of the implications of what he is asking from his teacher. Kyung-hoon, meanwhile, is wiser, thanks to his age and experience. Caught between desire and responsibility, he understands only too well that a relationship is not an option, but seems to have lost hope altogether, his face permanently engraved with profound loneliness. In the situation with Sang-woo specifically no good outcome is possible for him, for he cannot and must not even reveal his feelings to the person he likes, but instead must hurt him – a dilemma that causes him great anguish but that Sang-woo has yet to realise in the film’s climax.
The crux of Jinanyeoreum, Gapjagi also lies in the fact that Sang-woo might be precisely the kind of person that Kyung-hoon needs, much like Won-gyu needs Tae-jun in Baekya. Although their significant age gap and roles as teacher/student are socially and ethically problematic, the latter issue may soon dissolve as we know that Kyung-hoon is desperately trying to find job at another school. The former, meanwhile, would be irrelevant (at least if the parties involved so deemed it) were it not for the fact that one is an adult, and one a minor. With Sang-woo being 18 and thus less than a year from the legal age of consent in South Korea (19), we are however implicitly pointed to that necessary yet always somewhat arbitrary line between child and grown-up. As much as we would perhaps like it to be, Sang-woo and Kyung-hoon’s situation is not black and white, but rather treads on blurry borderlines: a year or two in the future there might be hope for what they each currently want, but cannot have.
남쪽으로 간다 (Namjjokeuro Ganda/Going South)
The final part in the trilogy, Namjjokeuro Ganda, follows two men on a journey that is, despite the title of the short, without a definite direction and destination. Gi-tae (Kim Jae-heung) and Jun-young (Chun Shin-hwan) met during their mandatory two-year stint in the Korean army. Jun-young, who has returned to civilian life by now, is driving Gi-tae back to the base after his last leave (presumably meaning that the end of Gi-tae’s service is nearing), but is rather harsh towards his friend. Their relationship from army times has clearly broken down, Jun-young telling Gi-tae not to contact him again. The soldier however is not willing to let go and spikes Jun-young’s coffee with sleeping pills, and, as soon as the drugs take effect, takes over the wheel, heading south – or nowhere in particular really.
When Jun-young finally awakens, he is, unsurprisingly, furious, but so is Gi-tae, who confronts his former lover/friend about broken promises. There are two things that crystallise through their emotional as much as physical fight: firstly, Jun-young is completely in denial not only about his one-time feelings for Gi-tae but his homosexuality in general (he dismisses their former relationship as something that happens to many soldiers when they get lonely) and, secondly, Gi-tae’s character is clearly losing it and very much overstepping boundaries. Indeed, the latter’s behaviour is not justifiable and yet we sympathise with him more so than Jun-young, because his pain is so tangible. Initially cool and collected, Gi-tae’s feelings are more and more externalised through physical things: he photographs Jun-young in the midst of one-last-time lovemaking, not to blackmail him but to materially record feelings that his lover will not admit to in words, engages in a savage mud-fight with Jun-young that almost ends bloodily and chucks down one bottle of beer after another, his state of increasing intoxication leading him to dance like a lunatic in a dark tunnel, music blaring over the car’s loudspeakers. Jun-young cannot be blamed for wanting to distance himself from this Gi-tae, who has significant emotional issues that may run deeper than this particular rejection. And yet one must ask, how desperate must one be to go AWOL and quasi-kidnap someone, acts that can only have serious repercussions? Open-ended like all parts of the Leesong Hee-ill trilogy, Namjjokeuro Ganda feels bleaker than either Baekya or Jinanyeoreum, Gapjagi, with a long journey to happiness still ahead for both characters.
Within this trilogy, Jinanyeoreum, Gapjagi is my personal favourite – not because it is necessarily that most accomplished film among all three, but because of the deeply uncomfortable and highly problematic questions that it raises about but also very much beyond homosexual relationships and society. Unlike in 후회하지 않아 (Huhoehaji Anha/No Regret, 2006), the focus in Jinanyeoreum, Gapjagi as well as the other ‘One Night and Two Days’ segments, is entirely on characters’ feelings, employing simple narratives and significantly less twists than Leesong Hee-il’s full-length debut film.
Feelings, of course, are complicated things: they can surreptitiously sneak up on us. Although they may at times be inappropriate, immoral or even verboten, their subconscious development is not something individuals can straight-out be condemned for, only acting on such feelings can. With Baekya, Jinanyeorum, Gapjagi and Namjjokeuro Ganda all inhabiting a space where characters are somewhere in between – having begun to realise what they feel, they must decide now how to act – Leesong puts the camera lens on the most difficult moment of all, when some individuals will triumph and others falter. Although not always easy to watch, the raw honesty of these stories is commendable.
Rating: 8/10 (joint rating for all three films)
Overall Verdict: Leesong Hee-il confirms his talents as a filmmaker with a trilogy consisting of two shorts and one feature-length film, telling stories of visual and aural beauty, but perhaps more importantly of emotional depth even within shorter runtimes. The raw honesty of these tales – all focusing on the often deeply problematic feelings of its characters, all posing difficult but very real questions – is commendable.
- A note on the cinematography and, especially, the music in the films: Leesong Hee-il’s filmmaking has in been praised in the past for its notably assured and beautiful cinematography for an indie production. The visuals are indeed often memorable, but equally so is the musical score of Leesong’s films. Songs – ranging from Western popular music to Korean ballads – are chosen with care, many instilling a sense of peace, nostalgia or even wistfulness, rather in contrast with the inner turmoil experienced by characters.
- I’m rather pleased that Lee Yi-Kyung, one of the cast members of the popular Hakkyo 2013 drama, is one of the leads in Baekya. It still happens that actors in (South East Asian) gay films get typecast, so it’s great to see Lee’s debut film has not stopped him from participating in more mainstream projects. He currently stars in the NTV drama 나인: 아홉 번의 시간여행 (Nain: Ahob beonui Shiganyeohaeng/Nine: Nine Times Time Travel, 2013) as the younger version of one of the secondary characters and is certainly a talent to watch.
- Some websites give One Night and Two Days as the English title for Baekya. However, I think that is actually the name of the entire trilogy.
- Q&A with Leesong Hee-il via Hanguk Yeonghwa: Part 1 and Part 2.
- Other reviews: Modern Korean Cinema (Baekya), Hanguk Yeonghwa (Baekya; Jinanyeoreum, Gapjagi; Namjjokeuro Ganda), Better than Disneyland (Baekya), London Korean Links (joint review for entire trilogy).
Note: Images 1-6 from Baekya, 7-9 from Jinanyeoreum, Gapjagi, 10-12 from Namjjokeuro Ganda.