Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 2, May 1999
My Queer Korea:
Identity, Space, and the 1998 Seoul Queer Film & Video Festival

Chris Berry

  1. When I was invited to speak at a forum during the 1998 Seoul Queer Film and Video Festival (SQFVF), I decided to keep a journal. A travelogue - a trace of what happens where and when that in its writing and publication simultaneously carves out another place and mobilises more connections - seemed appropriate. For I had come to feel that in East Asian societies I am familiar with, just as important as deciding whether to assume a gay/lesbian/queer (g/l/q) sense of self is whether, where and when other people will permit a social identity matching that self-perception. For example, there are no laws against g/l/q sexual acts in South Korea, but the representation of such acts is against the censorship regulations, and the 1997 SQFVF was banned. If the 1998 event went ahead, as I moved through it I wanted to keep my eyes open for the strategies enabling it to open up queer space in Korean society. [1]

    7pm, Friday 6 November 1998-Tullamarine Airport, Melbourne

  2. Sitting at the gate for my connecting flight to Sydney, and then it's off to Seoul to be queer. Or should that be 'a queer'? Like Judith Butler's 'anxiety and discomfort' at going 'off to Yale to be a lesbian,' something about being on display in Seoul as 'queer,' 'gay' or whatever has rattled me, although maybe not the same thing as worried Butler.[2] What does it mean to be 'queer' (kkui-o) in South Korea? A core group of academics and activists have read all the English-language literature on the subject. Some have proposed Korean terms such as iban, which combat both the foreignness and medicalisation of dong-song-ae, the direct translation of 'homosexual,' by combining some of the connotations of queer with local resonances and implications. But outside these cognoscenti, does the distinction between essential gay (ge-i) and lesbian (le-su-bi-an) on one hand and social constructionist queer on the other mean a lot in Korea?[3] There is no long-term history of gay and lesbian liberation movements in Korea to place queer against. Activists came out in the media for the first time only a few years ago. Sitting amidst the crowds coming and going at Tullamarine, I also wonder if the distinction means much outside the academic and activist community in Melbourne.
  3. However, these more existential questions are not at the front of my mind right now. Tonight is the opening night of the festival. I'm missing it because the IMF (glossed by one Korean friend as 'I am f***ed') Crisis has reduced flights to Korea from as many as three a night to only four a week. I'm wondering if the festival will actually open this time. Last year, we arrived at the theatre to find a notice pasted to the door by local government forbidding screenings on pain of hefty fines and long jail sentences. I was teaching for a semester at the Korean National University of Arts (KNUA). From previous visits, I already knew the festival director, Seo Dongjin, who was one of Korea's first gay activists.[4] And I knew that he, the staff and the unpaid volunteers had put in hundreds of hours in their broom cupboard of an office. They had also run up debts waiting for box office revenue to pay them off. In these circumstances, the last-minute banning seemed particularly calculating and vicious.

    Fig. 1. Seo Dongjin (right, with microphone) and the staff of the 1998 SQFVF.

  4. I gather from e-mail exchanges with Dongjin that none of the laws affecting last year's event have changed fundamentally. So, there is every possibility it will happen again. There are no laws against g/l/q sexual acts in South Korea, where it seems sexuality is seen as a private matter outside public discourse. However, the same logic makes the representation of homosexuality in film against the censorship law. I hear the clause covering this lists homosexuality with bestiality, paedophilia, and even cannibalism. Dongjin has told me that in the wake of protests following last year's ban and also Wong Karwai's youth cult film Happy Together, the Public Performance Ethics Committee (the censorship board) has decided to forbid only 'excessive homosexuality.' However, nobody knows what that means. Maybe the festival will put it to the test?
  5. In addition to censorship, festivals have to get permission to hold a public event from local authorities. Unable to get the censors to even consider their program, in 1997 SQFVF chose to hold their first festival on Yonsei University campus in Soedaemun district. Precedent indicated events held at tertiary institutions were exempt from censorship. Maybe, but the local authorities were another matter. This time, a different venue in a different gu (administrative district) of the city has been arranged. But it remains to be seen if it will go smoothly.
  6. That g/l/q culture has been burgeoning in metropolitan and middle-class parts of East and Southeast Asia has been noted by various commentators.[5] But absence of legal proscription as a symptom not of tolerance but of enforced social invisibility is also common in many societies in the region. The banning of SQFVF is only one example of that. I have heard about similar experiences from the organisers of the more discreetly named Alternative Love Film Festival in Bangkok, from whom I am carrying a press release and an interview to Seoul. In these circumstances, it seems the whole debate about performative versus essential concepts of identity is complicated by the question of where you can be g/l/q. Butler is careful in all her writings to resist any idea of performativity as implying voluntarism. Most writers about performativity also resist any confusion with performance. But maybe the metaphor of performance is useful for understanding that the practice of performativity is a social act, requiring a space and license by social powers. These issues are uppermost in my mind as I begin this journal. Rather than abstracted, and philosophical questions of being, doing and doing as being, it is the social geography of g/l/q visibility that I want to attend to here.

    3 am, Saturday 7 November 1998, 30,000 feet above the Pacific

  7. There's something else that's bothering me, too. I don't really have a problem with going 'off to Seoul to be queer.' But I'm not so sure about being a white guy addressing a Korean audience about Asian queer cinema, which is what I've been asked to do at the forum. Okay, so I've written a fair amount about the subject, but I've always assumed a mixed and predominantly English-speaking readership for those materials.[6] In my writing, I always try to undermine dominant orientalist structures that assume Asia as an exotic other, for example by looking for connections as well as differences across any imagined East-West divide. The talk I'm giving will be no exception. It attends to the frequent presence of blood family in cinematic representations of g/l/q issues in Asian cinema such as Korea's only gay feature to date, Broken Branches, which embeds gay issues in a family melodrama. But then it also turns to ask why blood kin is so absent from Euro-American representations. Does post-Stonewall 'coming out' mean losing blood family? Are there other possibilities, and do these films from East Asia begin to engage with them in some way?[7] I have the same interest with this journal; my aim is not to simply note the social geography of g/l/q visibility in South Korea as a local issue, but also to ask whether the same issue has not been overlooked in Euro-American g/l/q cultures. A white man lecturing a Korean audience about Asian film instantly reinstates all those assumptions I wish to challenge. I've tried saying 'no' but Dongjin has been insistent. I know from previous intense conversations that he has a very strong sense of imperialism, colonialism and orientalism, so I'm wondering why.

    1.20pm, Saturday 7 November 1998, the Artsonje Center Theater

  8. All seems to be going smoothly with the festival. It has not been banned and there are substantial crowds moving in and out of the various sessions, filling the auditorium.

    Fig. 2. Festival goers and television crews at the venue on opening night.

  9. The program is very impressive. As the first event of its kind in Korea, the 1998 SQFVF can cover more than just last year's films. It is surveying a wide range of recent queer cinema, including such 'contemporary classics' as Gregg Araki's Totally F***ed Up, (USA, 1994), Ana Kokkinos's Only the Brave, (Australia, 1994), Roeland Kerbosch's For a Lost Soldier, (The Netherlands, 1993), and John Greyson's Zero Patience, (1993). There's a particular emphasis on films from within the region, such as Ryosuke Hashiguchi's Like Grains of Sand, (Japan, 1996), Mel Chionglo's Midnight Dancers, (Philippines, 1994) and Tsai Ming-Liang's The River, (Taiwan, 1997). Tsai is also the closing night guest, but airline schedules mean I will miss him. However, I have drawn a big circle in my catalogue around a collection of Korean queer shorts and a panel discussion to go with it. That should be interesting.
  10. Right now, I'm about to catch up on a 1995 Taiwanese film, Where Is My Love? by Chen Jo-fei. But I've just had a chance to chat with Dongjin over a quick meal of bibimpap (rice with vegetables and a fried egg). Apparently, officials from the local government did turn up just before opening night and made a last-minute attempt to close the event down again. They claimed the Public Performance Ethics Committee had specified a number of films on the program were for limited screening (in other words, to professionals in the film world only), and that therefore the public festival must stop. SQFVF were able to get a fax from the Committee confirming the exemptions from the usual classification procedure that they had negotiated and so the event went ahead.
  11. Dongjin often places particular emphasis on the fact that SQFVF wants to co-operate with the censors. I have just been reminded that this is a controversial aspect of the festival by bumping into Kim Hyae-Joon of the Korean Film Institute on the way back to the venue. Kim took part in a panel on censorship at the KNUA while I was teaching there. His outline history of the Korean fight against film censorship made it clear that many independent filmmakers and festival organisers refuse such co-operation. For SQFVF, in contrast, if the censors deal with them it carries the larger signification of public and government recognition of g/l/q identity and activities. On occasion, both Dongjin and other activist friends have spoken about this recognition as constituting g/l/q 'citizenship' in Korea. In fact, SQFVF was in a win-win situation even last year, for banning the event also required the local authorities to name it and put into the public record as something they clearly wished did not exist.

    Midnight, Saturday 7 November 1998, The City Hotel

  12. My friend MiNa has just helped me find my way back to the City Hotel after we skipped the German cult film Killer Condom to have dinner instead. She is obviously unimpressed by my accommodations. Frankly, I am surprised to be in a hotel at all. Aware of SQFVF's funding situation, I expected to be sleeping on people's floors, and I'm very grateful I'm not. One thing this place certainly doesn't lack is heating. I've got the window open even though it's winter, but it's still too hot in here. But maybe that's because it's a love hotel? Maybe it's to encourage the patrons to throw their clothes off and get down to it. There's certainly something ironic about coming to Seoul for the Queer Film and Video Festival and then sleeping alone in a love hotel. What happens if two men or two women front up at a love hotel and try and rent a room for an afternoon? Can you be g/l/q in a love hotel? Does no one care or is it scandalous? I have heard different reports on this from different friends. Maybe you have to know the right love hotel?

    6.30am, Sunday 8 November 1998, City Hotel

  13. Like it or not, I always wake up around daybreak. I can tell already that the little bench in the lobby of the theatre foyer is going to be a good place to hang out and meet people. When I was taking a break between films yesterday afternoon I was introduced to Ms Kim Sun-Jung, Chief Curator of the Artsonje Center, who is hosting the festival in her theatre. Dongjin had mentioned over lunch that finding a venue had been a major headache. This is a subtle manifestation of the homophobia that makes it so difficult to find a space to be g/l/q in Korea, and in this case quite literally. Independent film events without official censor approval are held frequently without intervention from local government.[8] But this year censorship issues provided the excuse to try to close the event down again. Similarly, few venues would actually say they do not want a g/l/q event because it is g/l/q, but it proved almost impossible to find one.
  14. So, why was Ms Kim prepared to go ahead? Why is it OK to have a queer film festival in the Artsonje Center, but not in a regular art-house movie theatre? Or even the Pagoda Theater, a regular mainstream theatre but a notorious gay cruising zone within walking distance down the hill from here in Nagwon-dong? When I chatted to her on the little bench in the foyer, Ms Kim spoke in terms of international art movements, placing queer cinema as a cutting edge aesthetic development that she felt Korea art lovers were interested in. She also placed emphasis on being progressive and open-minded and believing in freedom of speech. Ms Kim is a knowledgeable, friendly, direct, and unpretentious woman. But I was also very aware that I was talking to a daughter of the family that owns the Daewoo Corporation, one of the enormous chaebol conglomerates dominating the Korean economy and, I hear, funding the Artsonje Center through the Daewoo Foundation.
  15. Why might Daewoo not object to an association with SQFVF? One can only speculate. But the chaebols benefited enormously from the discredited old military dictatorship, so I get the impression now that they are very eager to remodel their images and appear progressive. Also, since the early nineties, globalisation (saegaehwa) has been an official government policy in South Korea. Keeping up with foreign fine art trends would seem to fit into that. Since 1997, there has been a change of president, with Kim Young-Sam being replaced by Kim Dae-Jung, a former democracy activist who himself spent time in jail during the dictatorship and these tendencies have all been stepped up. Clearly, it's a good time to seem liberal, cutting edge and cosmopolitan in Korea.
  16. Looking back at what I've just written, the situation can be seen as a manifestation of how power marks out space with boundaries and access routes, permitting certain trajectories for certain people, and closing them off for others. If Foucault sees modern subjectivities as the effect of networks of power 'exercised from innumerable points,' the same networks also produce and regulate where and when those subjectivities can be granted the recognition that makes them socially visible identities.[9] It is clear from last year that the discourse of education mobilised by the Yonsei University venue was not an adequate discourse of resistance against the conservative discourses of 'tradition,' 'morality' and 'respectability,' linked to heterosexist and masculinist notions of national image and censorship laws. But maybe art, democracy, keeping up with international (read 'Western') trends, and big business form a more effective network of power?[10]

    2pm, Sunday 8 December 1998, the Artsonje Center Theater

  17. Back on my foyer bench, I've had more time to look around the Artsonje Center and think about its relation to SQFVF. I've just had lunch with my former boss from the KNUA and good friend, Professor Kim SoYoung, and she's reminded me that Daewoo is also a major sponsor of the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF). So SQFVF and Artsonje are not just mobilising the discourses of saegaehwa, democracy, social diversity and freedom of expression in the arts to open up a space for the festival, but also the specific appeal of film festivals with young people as a significant consuming and voting segment of society in Korea. PIFF is only the biggest and most prominent example of the festivals that have proliferated as part of the Korean 'cinemania' phenomenon. SoYoung has written that cinemania has, in some sense, replaced the street demonstrations and student movement of the eighties. It is a postmodern phenomenon suited to the new consumerist democracy of South Korea, but not one entirely devoid of political importance, as many festivals like SQFVF are also tied to the identity politics that has also mushroomed in this decade.[11]
  18. However, locating the festival within the space of the art gallery also has other consequences. SoYoung and I had lunch in the Artsonje Center's own restaurant, the splendidly named Artissimo. It is a bit chichi, but I'm quite happy to hang out there, too. Europe connotes sophistication in Korea, as I suppose it does in Australia, and everything about Artsonje strives for a sophisticated image, too. It is located in Seoul's old and central Chongno-gu district, slightly up in the hills. The building itself covers a small area of extremely expensive real estate and is on a number of levels. The art is on the upper floors, the restaurant at ground level, and the movies in the basement, with a separate stairway down to the theatre outside the main building itself. The symbolism of this arrangement is not lost on me, as it echoes the way galleries and museums the world over deal with film. Clearly, even art cinema is not really as classy as painting and art. Of course, this is part of its appeal, but it seems a line must be drawn.
  19. In the gallery itself is an exhibition of Korean woman artist Lee Bul's sculptures; big silicon cyborgs and monsters conjuring up a world of body parts and cosmetic surgery. This seems to have the same combination of social and aesthetic cutting edge qualities that SQFVF could be said to have, and therefore to fit in with a certain image Artsonje seems to be projecting.
  20. Sitting together with Dongjin on the foyer bench after my
    lunch with Soyoung, I floated the possibility that Artsonje might have taken SQFVF on board because they think of it primarily as an aesthetic event. 'Sometimes misunderstanding is very useful,' he responds carefully. We observe people coming and going in the foyer. Riot police keeping wandering down to use the bathroom. They're here because there's some sort of demonstration going on against Daewoo, so ironically enough they are protecting us rather than harassing us. Some stop as they pass to look at the TV monitors showing whatever is screening in the theatre. They seem unperturbed. Some even seem quite interested.

    Fig. 3. SQFVF under the umbrella of police protection of the Artsonje Center.

  21. Suddenly the theatre doors swing open and a couple of very elegant matrons sweep out and up the steps, their Ferragamo heels clicking furiously on the granite. The monitors are showing a surgical procedure involved in the female to male transsexual process. Dongjin convulses with laughter, convinced they stumbled down from the gallery by mistake. 'Oh, you never know,' I say. 'Maybe they're off to book the op in with their cosmetic surgeons now.' I'm only half-joking. It's a very mixed crowd, and quite hard to pick who's who. The gallery space has enabled the event to happen. But it is definitely not only attracting a very upwardly mobile set, but also one that is not evidently g/l/q. Is this a satisfying queer fluidity? Or does it mean we haven't found queer space yet, I wonder?

    7am Monday 9 November 1998, City Hotel

  22. Yesterday evening's screening of Midnight Dancers seemed to attract a good crowd, many of whom were more obviously g/l/q. The festival is expecting thinner audiences now that the working week has begun. Sitting on my foyer bench yesterday evening, I bumped into both Lee Chung-Woo from the Chingusai gay men's group that also has branches in the United States and Grace Lee from the lesbian organisation Kkiri-kkiri. Grace complains about the new lesbian bars. Of course, she's happy Seoul has lesbian bars now, but the number of women actively involved in Kkiri-kkiri has dwindled.
  23. Such is the price of success. Back in 1995, I remember Dongjin taking me to the gay nighttime cruising zone of Tapkol Park and the nearby Nagwon-dong area.[12] Nothing was visible to the untrained eye, including the Nagwon-dong bars, and the whole neighbourhood seemed closed for the night. Like the speakeasies of the prohibition era, you had to know which doors to knock on. Even the more western-style bars in Itaewon did not advertise themselves as gay bars. It was hard to see how someone in the process of coming out would ever even find the scene.
  24. The whole g/l/q scene has exploded since then, but not necessarily in a way that has led to many more people being publicly identified as g/l/q. In fact, in the absence of legal proscription, the networks of power producing Korean g/l/q favour developments which preserve anonymity. The media does sensational tabloid swoops on Tapkol Park (which I guess means guys in the process of coming out now know where to go), but the people 'exposed' usually have their faced morphed or masked. There are more bars opening all the time, but unless you're seen going in and out of them, the bar scene remains anonymous. Joining the various activist and social groups can also be very discreet. And possibly most important of all is the burgeoning use of telephone bulletin boards and internet sites, which is enabling precisely because it allows easy anonymity. In 1997, together with Fran Martin, I examined this internet phenomenon and some of its implications both for practical politics and identity formation in Taiwan and Korea.[13] At that time, the preference in Korea seemed to be to access bulletin boards through dedicated sections provided by the major service providers, such as Chollian's Queernet, Hitel's Dosamo and Nownuri's Rainbow, and there were relatively few home pages run by individuals.[14] Since then, even that has changed, and there is an ever-growing list of Korean sites today.
  25. Of course, it is wonderful that so much has happened so quickly. But without greater public visibility, it is difficult to address issues like discrimination, AIDS education and so forth adequately, which frustrates many Korean activists and leaves most g/l/q Koreans still leading double lives. Earlier in 1998, Chung-Woo and Grace interviewed me together for Korea's new gay and lesbian glossy magazine, Buddy. Buddy was an important development in expanding public visibility. When the magazine was being mooted at the end of 1997, many people thought it would fail. They advanced two reasons; no newsagent would stock it, and no one would dare to be seen buying it. Yet Buddy survived and thrived. And now SQFVF has also appeared in spaces hitherto off-limits for g/l/q culture in South Korea. Not even Dongjin would have predicted this a couple of years ago.

    11pm Monday 9 November 1998, City Hotel

  26. I ducked out of the festival this evening for an editorial board meeting of Professor Kim SoYoung's new KNUA journal, Trans, dedicated to comparative visual cultural studies with an emphasis on the Asian region. We met in a small restaurant in Insadong, like Nagwon-dong just down the hill from the Artsonje Center. The guidebooks have it that Insadong is the old artists' sector of Seoul, and it certainly has the best traditional restaurants in town as well as many small art galleries and shops. In one of those restaurants, I am among the first to gather along with Women's Studies Professor Kim Eun-Shil of Ehwa Women's University. We sit on the floor in the traditional manner and have a conversation about the hierarchy of seating patterns at the Korean table. Neither of us is surprised when, later, the two Korean male professors who have been invited to attend automatically take the prime positions halfway down the long side of the table. I pick one of the far corners.
  27. The film festival, the journal itself, and the decision to hold the meeting of such a globalised journal in such a localised setting all remind me that the local forces working in local ways to inscribe places where it is and is not possible to be g/l/q are simultaneously importing and deploying a host of imported ideas and practices. Multiply colonised and strongly resistant, South Korean society is at once defiantly local and powerfully syncretic. The chaebols that have helped to build Korea as a powerful international economic force are modelled on the zaibatsu of the former colonising power, Japan. The discourses and values invoked by the Artsonje Center mix the aesthetic and social cutting edge in a manner drawn from European and American modernism at the same time as they address local issues, such as the high prevalence for cosmetic surgery invoked by Lee Bul's sculptures. And of course, the very idea of constructing a social identity based on same-sex sexuality is itself an import, buttressed by also imported discourses of human rights facing opposition from the equally imported notions of collective discipline and subordination to the modernising state.

    6.30am, Wednesday 11 November 1998, City Hotel

  28. I meant to record this journal at least once a day. Of course, I am tiring a little. But something about yesterday's forum following the programme of Korean queer short films threw me. When I got back last night, I didn't know what to write. Now I'm sitting by my open window with a cup of coffee, trying to put my thoughts together.
  29. Before the forum, I had been delighted with the shorts. Of course, any such collection is always a mixed bag, but I have rarely seen such consistent quality in a program of Korean shorts. I was particularly taken with the subtlety and dark perversity of some of the films, and pleased there was very little saccharine positive imagery even if one or two films were indulgently tragic and lovesick. Here are my notes on some of the films that stood out for me.

      Simultaneity by the woman director Kim Sung-Sook captures beautifully a sense of living for the moment when life is insecure and contingent. The main character is a young man who has lost his job after an injury at work. Now he runs a small stall renting videos, including under the counter porno tapes to make a little extra money. With his roommate, whom we infer to be his lover, he talks of moving on. But one day, when he has asked his roommate to look after the stall while he runs an errand, the police swoop. He watches them take his roommate away, then continues on his own way, seeming to have forgotten everything already.

      J (for jealousy) and K (for killer) are two very hip, very sharp little videos by Turtle Choi. K is a sort of lesbian murder fantasy in which daddy is done away with, and J is a teen-angst clip. Both have little or no dialogue, and move fast. Like Simultaneity, they present situations without judgement, which I like a lot.

      Mom, I Know Your Endless Love by Kim Jong-Goo takes us into the psychological realm, with an almost obscene representation of the oppressive dedication of the Korean mother to her son. In this case it extends to cleaning the floor on her hands and knees while her son's boyfriend gives him a blowjob in the same room.

      Mother by Park Dong-Hoon is another psycho-family drama (in both senses suggested by the term). A wimp in prison finds himself serving his thuggish new cellmate in every way, including sexually. He is in jail because he killed someone defending his mother. He fantasises little family tableaux to keep him going, with both he and his cellmate taking roles in them. Gradually, his cellmate becomes more dependent on him, and the roles in the tableaux begin to shift.

  30. There were a total of eight or nine films in the program, and many as troubling, distinctive and powerful as these. But when we got to the forum at a nearby coffee shop, I was taken aback. Patriarchal seating habits and deference had almost automatically been invoked by the space of the restaurant in which the Trans meeting had been held, but not in a manner which interfered with the meeting. The same sort of thing happened in the forum, but in a manner that seemed to be preventing it from emerging as a queer space.
  31. A number of important male critics had been arranged to comment and ask the first questions of the filmmakers, who were on a panel. Almost like the permission from the censors, the participation of those critics gave SQFVF recognition. But just as the placement of SQFVF within the gallery space and fine art discourses of Artsonje had certain side effects, so did this. Each critic first professed to know nothing about 'queer,' at the same time carefully making it clear that they themselves were not queer. They then proceeded to talk at length about characterisation, budgets, narrative structures and anything except sexuality. One even asked Turtle Choi whether or not K might not incite patricide.
  32. More frustrating still, with the exception of Turtle Choi, all the filmmakers joined in this careful avoidance of the issue that had brought us all together. Only Choi spoke straightforwardly as a lesbian video maker, stating that she hoped to address what she perceived as misrepresentation through her films. However, even she did not actually say she was a lesbian and continued to use her assumed name. One by one, the others made it clear they were not g/l/q, (although one of them later sent an anonymous message through a friend asking if I might like a one-night stand.) They then declared their interest in g/l/q characters and situations as being a suitable avenue to protest against Korean patriarchy (Mom, I Know Your Endless Love), an unimportant element of the film (Simultaneity), or a good way of showing social alienation (Contempt, about a transsexual). Park Ki-Hyung said of the queer horror short The Great Pretender, which he made before his megahit horror feature Whispering Corridors, that the gay element of the film was not so important to him; he was just looking for something new, a gimmick that would catch people's attention.
  33. I was distressed that the forum did not operate as a queer space in which g/l/q subjects could speak out publicly. On the other hand, I recognised that the willingness of young (allegedly) heterosexual filmmakers and well-established critics to participate in SQFVF was an achievement in itself. Similarly, the decision of so many filmmakers to represent g/l/q characters of one sort or another in their films acknowledges the existence of g/l/q Koreans, and makes their existence a part of public discourse. But on the other hand, what I had mistaken as g/l/q Korean sophistication now appears as non-g/l/q Koreans seeing g/l/q Koreans as sad, sorry, rejected and marginalised victims worthy of sympathy. Here, I am reminded of the slightly queasy feeling I got reading Rey Chow's discussion of the obsessive interest male Chinese authors earlier this century had for suffering women. Chow nominates this as a complex and masochistic pleasure rather than a sadistic one, for it was based on empathy and an identification with these women as symbols of semi-colonial China.[15]
  34. Are alienated and suffering g/l/q Korean characters appearing in these films by non-g/l/q Koreans as objects of a similar masochistic identification, symbols not of a nation in the throws of self-production under an imperialist world order, but instead of a postmodern generation discovering its lack of a sense of destiny and its exclusion from the modernist myths of progress that animated previous generation? And just as I wondered what good it did Chinese women for those male authors to need them as victims, I wonder how much good it does g/l/q Koreans for these filmmakers to need them as victims, too. I don't believe that there is some sort of inevitable series of stages in the development of g/l/q culture, with 'positive images' being required before 'mature' balanced images can be arrived at. However, the discovery that these films are not produced from a space of g/l/q identification or primarily for a g/l/q audience shows, like the forum itself, just how difficult it still is to be publicly g/l/q in Korea today.
  35. Later on in the day, I found myself back on the little bench in the lobby of the Artsonje Center Theater, talking with Nakata Toichi. Nakata is a Korean Japanese now living in London and the director of, amongst other films, Osaka Story, a documentary about exposing family secrets including his father's other family in South Korea and his own gayness. He is staying in the room next to mine at the City Hotel, but somehow we haven't been bumping into each other so much. He was also disturbed by the forum. We speculated about the reasons that make it hard for people to attain a g/l/q social identity, ranging from their financial dependence on their families to their Confucian-derived sense of family duty and the cultural and social psychology where selfhood is not seen as self-generated from within but as dependent upon recognition from without and even bestowed upon people socially.
  36. Nakata had also heard that there was some problem with Tsai Ming-Liang's appearance on closing night. He asked me if Tsai had come out yet, explaining that he had heard Tsai refused to allow his films to be shown in g/l/q events, something that clearly disgusts Nakata. I am surprised by this, as the last time I interviewed Tsai the whole thing was premised on a frank assumption that he was completely public now.[16] But after this forum, I'm even beginning to wonder whether I was making the wrong assumptions.
  37. Later today, it is my turn to talk in the same coffee shop at the forum about Queer Asian Cinema. I feel apprehensive because I realise that East-West issues that worried me on the plane over are about to be overridden by those of sexual identity. Regardless of whether my listeners are to be Korean, Australian, American, English, Chinese, or whatever, I have always assumed that I would be addressing a g/l/q audience in a g/l/q space. Now I'm not so sure.

    11pm, Wednesday 11th November, City Hotel

  38. The forum was indeed a little odd. Everything went quite smoothly and the atmosphere was certainly friendly enough. As well as Dongjin, Nakata Toichi was speaking, my former student Cho Eunjong was translating, and Professor Kim SoYoung from the KNUA was there as a respondent.

    Fig. 4. The author at the forum on Queer Asian Cinema with Cho Eunjong (l), Seo Dongjin (r) and Professor Kim SoYoung (2nd r).

    I droned on in my careful, nuanced and academic way, probably boring everyone. But Nakata's contribution was much more direct and confronting. He took up the issue of blood family mentioned in my paper and the subject of his film, asking 'Why when I think about 'coming out' must I feel sorry towards my parents?' and 'Why do I have to love people who have no respect for my lifestyle?' Then he suddenly broke off to wonder if there was much point in talking about this unless the audience was in a position to empathise. 'How many people here are actually gay or lesbian?' he asked. He and I put our hands up, but everyone else laughed in an embarrassed manner. Given that I recognised some of Korea's most active and militant gay and lesbian activists sitting right in front of me, I was a little taken aback. Nakata's astute intervention made me realise both that SQFVF's achievement is even greater than I had thought and that there's still a long way to go.

    6pm, Thursday 12th November, 1998, Kimpo Airport

  39. Sitting at the gate in Kimpo Airport, on my way back home. I'm happy to know that whatever the problem with Tsai was, it has been cleared up and he will be there on closing night with The River. I confess that even though SQFVF has redoubled my understanding of the difficulty of producing a public g/l/q identity in East Asian societies, I would have lost all respect for him if he had pulled out.
  40. I love the fact that Kimpo is on the subway system; it makes everything so much simpler. Before coming out here, I went back up to the Artsonje one last time to say goodbye. Crowds of young women were gathering for the screenings of the Sadie Benning shorts. It was a great sight. Even two years ago, it was hard to imagine that people in Seoul would ever line up for tickets to a screening of publicly advertised lesbian short films. Now I'm sitting in the airport again, I'm wondering about the social geography of being g/l/q in Australia. I think it is fair to say that as a social space, Kimpo operates on the assumption that this is heterosexual space and everyone in it carries a heterosexual identity unless they make a forceful assertion to the contrary. I think the same is true at Tullamarine. Although there are certainly a lot more spaces where it is possible to be socially recognised as g/l/q in Australia than in South Korea, the issue seems just as pertinent there. How can we (Australian, Korean, whatever) not only continue to strategise to open up more g/l/q spaces in our different societies but also work to remove the operation of a heterosexual default category that makes the whole process necessary in the first place?


    [1] I want to thank Seo Dongjin and all the staff and volunteers of the Seoul Queer Film and Video Festival for enabling me to participate in the 1998 event. In particular, I want to thank the four or five people who took turns to help me with translation. Without them, this journal would have been impossible. I also want to thank Sarah Rawlston, Lee Chung-Woo, and Kim SoYoung for sharing their thoughts during my visit, and Chung-Woo for recommending so many websites to me! Finally, a note on romanisation. There are standardized ways of romanising Korean, but not many people in Korea stick to them. So, for example, 'Chongno' district can appear as 'Chongro' or even as 'Jongro.' Where known to me, I have chosen the most common forms of various terms and the romanised forms of people's names that they themselves use.

    [2] Judith Butler, 'Imitation and Gender Insubordination,' in inside/out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss, New York: Routledge, 1991, p. 18. The comment is discussed as part of a consideration of the value or otherwise of lesbian identity in Julia Creet, 'Anxieties of Identity: Coming Out and Coming Undone,' in Negotiating Lesbian and Gay Subjects, ed. Monica Dorenkamp and Richard Henke, New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 179-99.

    [3] For anyone unfamiliar, the best introduction is Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996.

    [4] Chris Berry, 'Seoul Man: A Night on the Town with Korea's First Gay Activist,' Outrage 159, August, (1996):38-40.

    [5] For example, Dennis Altman, 'The World of 'Gay Asia,' in Asian and Pacific Inscriptions, a special book issue of Meridian, ed. Suvendrini Pereira, 14, 2, (1995):121-38.

    [6] For example, A Bit on the Side: East-West Topographies of Desire, Sydney: EmPress Publishing, 1994; 'Where Is the Love? The Paradox of Performing Loneliness in Vive L'Amour,' in Caught in the Act: Performance in the Cinema, ed. Lesley Stern and George Kouvaris, Sydney: Power Institute Press, forthcoming 1999; 'The Scenic Route versus the Information Superhighway,' in Textual Practices in Singapore Culture, ed. Phyllis G. L. Chew and Anneliese Kramer-Dahl, Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1999, pp. 201-16; 'Globalisation and Localisation: Queer Films from Asia,' in The Bent Lens: A World Guide to Gay & Lesbian Film, ed. Claire Jackson and Peter Tapp, Melbourne: Australian Catalogue Company, 1997; 'Sexual DisOrientations: Homosexual Rights, East Asian Films, and Postmodern Post-nationalism,' in Cultural Politics in East Asia, ed. Xiaobing Tang and Stephen Snyder, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996, pp. 157-83; and 'Staging Gay Life in China: Zhang Yuan and East Palace, West Palace,' in Jump Cut, 42, (December 1998):84-9.

    [7] 'Asian Values, Family Values: Film, Video and Lesbian and Gay Identities,' Journal of Homosexuality, 39, vols. 3-4, (forthcoming, 1999).

    [8] This is not always the case. For example, the Independent Film Festival was closed down in 1997 soon after the SQFVF was banned. One can never tell when the law will be enforced, which only adds to its potency.

    [9] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol.1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981, p. 94. For examples of essays in queer social geography, see David Bell and Gill Valentine (eds.), Mapping Desire: Geographies of Sexualities, London: Routledge, 1995.

    [10] However, the alliances between big business and left-progressive arts events fostered in this way are also often unstable in the Korean context, as manifested by the example of the Seoul Documentary Film and Video Festival, sponsored by Samsung's Q cable channel. The first year, when I attended, seemed to go remarkably well; Chris Berry, 'Report: Ist Seoul Documentary Video & Film Festival, April 16-20, 1996,' Cinemaya, 32, Spring, (1996):58-9. But, as another guest reports, it all fell apart in the second year; Michael Benson, 'Tear Gas and Etiquette,' Sight and Sound, vol. 7, no. 7, (1997):22-6.

    [11] Kim Soyoung, '"Cine-Mania" or Cinephilia: Film Festivals and the Identity Question,' in UTS Review, vol. 4, no. 2, (1998):175-88

    [12] It is interesting to note that Tapkol Park is a site of national political significance, much like New Park in Taipei and the alleyways around Tiananmen Square. There's a kind of subversive irony in the queer appropriation of these solemn public spaces by night and another essay on queer social geography in Asia to be written around it, if it has not already been written.

    [13] Fran Martin and Chris Berry, 'Queer'n'Asian on the Net: Syncretic Sexualities in Taiwan and Korean Cyberspace,' in Critical InQueeries, vol. 2, no. 1, (1998):67-95.

    [14] Although I've given links for all three ISPs, of course you would have to sign up with them to get access to those g/l/q areas of their sites.

    [15] Rey Chow, 'Loving Women: Masochism, Fantasy, and the Idealization of the Mother,' in Woman and Chinese Modernity: The Politics of Reading Between East and West, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, pp. 121-70. In this chapter, Chow also discusses writings by female authors about suffering women.

    [16] Chris Berry, 'Tsai Ming-Liang: Look at All the Lonely People,' Cinemaya, vol. 30, Autumn, (1995):18-20.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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