Wednesday, January 19, 2011

No Regrets : Review by Koreanfilm.org



    No Regrets







With the critical praise for his shorts "Sugar Hill" and "Good Romance" and with No Regrets being the first South Korean feature directed by an out Gay Korean, one can say that there was a lot of pressure on Leesong Hee-il regarding his debut feature. Regardless of whether he felt this pressure himself, Leesong has lived up to the challenge providing an engaging story, equal parts melodrama, social commentary, comedy, and treatise on hope for us all.
No Regrets
I haven't had the privilege to see Leesong's short films, but according to Han Seung-hee in her interview with Leesong published in Korean Film Observatory (No. 20), No Regrets is an expanded version of "Good Romance". In fact, the actor who played the main character in that short, Lee Young-hoon, is the main actor here. He plays Su-min, an orphan who, since he is unable to pay for university, must leave the orphanage at 18. (Leesong's research for this film led him to find that this requirement leads many orphans, male and female, to end up in factories and hostess/host bars in Seoul at 18. "Some days, I feel like I might like to shoot an orphanage story," he says)  Su-min heads to Seoul to work various jobs in order to pay for computer classes and later university. An ethical stance on Su-min's part results in his losing his factory job. (Such a morally upstanding gesture along with Lee's beauty endears him early on with the audience. This also provides a nice expose on class in Queer communities, adding layers to the 'hostess bar' genre in South Korean cinema that Leesong redefines here.) Hit hard on financial times, Su-min ends up taking a job at a host bar. The boss (they call him 'Madame') of this host bar is reluctant to bring on Su-min since experience has shown him that gay-identified hosts will often leave once they become romantically involved with one of their clients. Su-min is at a point in his life where he's given up on love, so he believes this won't happen to him, until a man from his past enters the host bar and life gets messier, more beautiful, and messier again. But for those who have had enough of the self-loathing and tragedy demanded in some films with sexual minority plots and subplots, hold on. At the risk of revealing the ending, let me just say don't worry. As much as I have problems with the narrative flow near the ending, at least No Regrets is not going where we are initially led to believe it is.


One of the best aspects of this film is how we aren't provided the obligatory caricatures of Gay 'types' on prime-time sitcoms in the United States. Su-min is a well-rounded character and I love his refusal to answer questions he doesn't feel people have the right to ask. Each character has a depth that allows each to be more than simply the queen, the naive waif, the self-denier, etc. Refusing to follow the path towards Queer liberation espoused by sitcoms, No Regrets is freed to provide some refreshingly, rip-roaring hilarious moments. The banter provided by Madame and one of Su-min's co-workers would have had the audience at the 11th PIFF rolling on the floor with laughter had there been room on the floor of the packed house. Many of the jokes are specific to a Korean audience, (no one was able to explain to me what was meant by the crowd-pleasing 'You look like the dick on Shilim Avenue' slam of the country bumpkin), but there is enough context here and quality acting and directing to ascertain what commentary witty retorts such as 'Wheat-floured face' are intended to impart.


But still, the joy of my experience with No Regrets was obviously enhanced by the crowd and their positive reactions to what they were watching. I almost missed this film, but thankfully ran into Italian film critic (and Koreanfilm.org contributor) Paolo Bertolin in the maze of streets in Haeundae that confound one's sense of cardinal directions. He insisted I get a standing-room ticket for the sold-out show. So I did just that and was one of the lucky standing-room-ers who was able to snag a seat from the late ticket holders. (PIFF is notorious for its strict time schedules. Variety had a story this year about one of their reviewers being physically restrained from entering after arriving a few minutes late.) Just before the film began I looked to see that every seat was occupied, every step in the theatre appropriated as a seat, and still more people were lined up along the walls anxious to see this film.
Commenting on the particularities of Queerness in South Korea would take a dissertation that space here will not allow. Until I stumble on such a Ph.D., how 'bout a master's thesis instead? Matty Wegehaupt's master thesis "Hong Seok-cheon - Keoming Aut in South Korea" details the cultural nuances around the South Korean TV actor's public coming out in 2002 that was immediately followed by his dismissal from the station that employed him. Such actions might lend support to a view that South Korea is a "conservative" country when it comes to sexual minorities. But just as Bruce Cumings argues in Korea's Place in the Sun that the adjectives of "liberal" and "conservative" as used in the U.S. are not fully transferable to a Korean context, Wegehaupt questions whether one can really call a country 'conservative' where the labor union rushed to the defense of their openly Gay colleague? And this defense was not due to 'Western Liberalization' but to something organic in South Korean culture. In fact, as Wegehaupt would later elaborate for me in an email, "While it may be the perspective of a minority, within Korean cultural mores there exist the means to freely accept and support the new phenomenon of public homosexual identities." Perhaps nothing supports Wegehaupt's claim more than the packed crowd that came to watch No Regrets. And perhaps nothing supports Leesong's film of hope more than the smiles on the faces of many of us who watched this ground-breaking film, smiles shared on the faces of Su-min and Jae-min (Lee Han) as they survive the tragedy that surrounds them, reminding us that until we can live honestly with ourselves in all countries, such tragedy surrounds us all.      (Adam Hartzell)



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