Queer Korean film challenges conventions

No Regret transcends the boundaries of traditional film. It is by turns brooding and charged, like a drama. The director, an openly gay Korean man, has created a genre-bender, the ambiguity of which is probably driven more by the subject matter than by choice.

Koreans of Williams and the Eph Rainbow Alliance co-sponsored a well-attended showing of No Regret last Thursday, Oct. 18, in Griffin 7.

In order to undermine labels, we must crack them open and reveal the intricacies hidden beneath the convenience. No Regret is set in Korean society, stereotypically conventional. The movie focuses on those lives that undulate beneath the surface and are confined to the fringes. Su-min Lee (Young-hoon Lee) is one such person: an orphan who works at the prototypical Asian factory.

Su-min appears child-like; he has a white poodle and emotional features to match his pet. Our impression of his juvenility is then challenged when he finds work as a male prostitute at a hole-in-the-wall type of place. The innocent-turned-jaded-boy – a contrast brought out further by the alternating sun-shining-brightly-on-a-rooftop scenes and the dark, cavern-like scenes in crowded hallways and rooms – could have been the subject of a character study in and of himself. Director Hee-ill Leesong, however, doesn’t develop him further. Instead, he becomes an object of obsession for another character.

The smitten man is Jae-min Song (Han Lee), a business executive at the factory where Su-min works by day and a client at the male brothel by night. And predictably, the unequal balance of power creates conflicts and drives the story forward. Of course, there are roadblocks created by the supporting characters of their lives, such as fiancés and best friends. There are familiar tropes from soap operas – mothers giving stern lectures about the honor of the family, women slapping their male betrayers and opportune car accidents.

The story only emerges from its predictability at the end, at which point it becomes so fantastical and unnatural, it feels like we have entered science fiction. The sword scenes that are set in the Asian forest of Zhang Yimou evoke the haunting environs of a distant world. This scene, which had the potential to be poignant, came off as a confused non sequitur. The forest is a location outside the boundaries of formal society, where its artifices can no longer keep Su-min and Jae-min apart. It is here where they are formally introduced to one another; until now, they’ve only had sex and exchanged confused dialogues where Jae-min professes his hurt over unrequited love and Su-min tells Jae-min half-jokingly that he disgusts him. That the movie takes so long for the two protagonists to be properly introduced is a bad sign for its coherency.

No Regret is unsure of what it is, so it holds out far too much. This is not a credible attempt at subverting labels because there are too many familiar elements poorly-hewn together. It is an unpolished piece of admittedly difficult material.

In short, I did not come away with any perspective on gay culture in Korea. The movie shifts too quickly for that to happen, perhaps suggesting the roaming, out-of-place mentality of a gay lifestyle. But this is theoretical speculation founded on nothing directly from the movie because the movie doesn’t give you enough to work with.

It may have its niche audience, but to have Brokeback Mountain resonance, the film would require a better sense of how to mold labels. All labels have an expiration date, and there is definitely a movement towards throwing out society’s stomach-churning views on homosexuality. The movie was too careless in its treatment of stereotypes, which left the confusing sense that they were being affirmed.

To be fair, movies that challenge convention are often ambiguous. But as moviegoers, we need to be offered something besides the tired stereotypes.