Going South (남쪽으로 간다)

Going South (남쪽으로 간다) – ★★★☆☆

Going South (남쪽으로 간다)

Going South (남쪽으로 간다)

In exploring the issues of homosexuality within the Korean military, director Lee Song Hee-il’s (이송희일) short film Going South (남쪽으로 간다) is a somewhat culturally sensitive affair on an oft-known, yet seldom discussed topic. Forming part of the director’s 2012 trilogy alongside White Night (백야) and Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)Going South also depicts the evolving relationship between two men over the course of several hours, in this instance as they travel through the countryside towards an army barracks. The returning soldier, Gi-tae (Kim Jae-heung (김재흥), is distraught as his lover Jun-yeong (Jeon Sin-hwan (전신환) has ended their relationship following the completion of his mandatory military service. The narrative explores their differing ideology regarding homosexuality within the trauma of separation, emphasizing key socio-cultural issues throughout. Yet the film also struggles with the debate and the increasingly tense relationship, sparingly introducing information about the couple resulting in a somewhat bland, yet very attractive film.

The most striking feature of Going South is undoubtedly the colour palette as director Leesong employs highly effective use of the natural green tones of the countryside. The director’s artistic sensibilities are acutely on display throughout as he captures the vibrant greens of the forests that serve as a backdrop for the protagonists, providing a palpable energy as Gi-tae and Jun-yeong fight and curse at each other during their break-up. Within this realm Gi-tae’s military uniform seamlessly merges with the surrounding environment while Jun-yeong’s city fashion is completely at odds, and director Leesong does well in employing costume to highlight the stark differences between the two protagonists. The contrast with the brown hues that enter the film are also profound, adding potent symbolism for the various stages of their rapidly deteriorating relationship.

Soldier Gi-tae's uniform blends with the green landscapes

Soldier Gi-tae’s uniform blends with the green landscapes

Central to the narrative is the issue of homosexuality within the military, which is wonderfully articulated through Gi-tae and Jun-yeong. For Gi-tae, being gay is part of his identity; for Jun-yeong, it is a phase that men go through during military service. As the two clash over their different ideological perspectives, letters that were exchanged between them when they served together are edited within the film, harking back to their history and the sweet exchanges that took place. Such title screens are quite distracting however, and serve to pull the audience out of the film due to their unnatural insertion. Despite this, Going South quickly becomes an examination of contemporary Korean masculinity, and the role of the military in defining sexuality.

Yet attractive visuals and central theme aside, Going South is a somewhat flat queer film. Much of the running time is preoccupied with driving through the countryside, with more information required to make the protagonists and their ‘journey’ more compelling. The narrative does pick up in the later stages to end on a high note, yet the actors aren’t really stretched into creating the required impetus for these scenes to truly generate the utmost poignancy.

As the relationship deteriorates, symbolic brown tones enter the frame

As the relationship deteriorates, symbolic brown tones enter the frame

Verdict:

Going South is a vibrant, attractive queer film examining homosexuality within the Korean military, and deserves praise merely for broaching the subject. Director Leesong Hee-il employs the colours of the countryside effectively, however the film is a rather flat offering due to the sparse information and lack of powerful performances. Yet Going South offers an interesting perspective in role of the military in defining contemporary Korean masculinity, and as such provides a fresh approach in the exploration of gay relationships.

★★★☆☆

Advertisements
Reviews
Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기) – ★★★★☆

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기) is a wonderfully moving and understated short film, and certainly the best of director Lee Song Hee-il’s (이송희일) 2012 trilogy comprised of White Night (백야) and Going South (남쪽으로 간다). In each segment of the trilogy the theme of two men spending a prolonged period of time together in a day is explored, with Suddenly, Last Summer exploring this dynamic between thirty-something high school teacher Kyeong-hoon (경훈, Kim Yeong-jae (김영재) and student Sang-woo (상우, Han Joo-wan (한주완). Typically films that delve into such age and society-related relationships attempt to portray a morality tale of some sort, yet director Leesong eschews melodramatic cliches in order to convey a psychologically complex connection between the protagonists, emerging as a mature and thought-provoking examination on the subject.

Key to the potency of Suddenly, Last Summer is the manner in which director Leesong presents information about the relationship between Kyeong-hoon and Sang-woo, and how such revelations develop their connection. Initially Sang-woo, an attractive young gay student, appears to be infatuated with the teacher, stalking him and making unfair demands. Yet as they engage in various conversations throughout the day, moments from the past are subtly referenced adding layers upon layers of complexity to their relationship, discussing and debating prior actions that may or may not have contained deeper meanings and the inferences generated from them. Director Leesong refuses to either condone or condemn the protagonists, instead opting to examine their internal struggles between desires as gay men and societal responsibilities.

The psychological complexities of he relationship are subtly explored

The psychological complexities of the relationship are subtly explored

Director Leesong’s films always display a keen artistic sensibility, and with Suddenly, Last Summer this most notably appears through the repetition of water imagery. In taking a river cruise in the popular Yeouido area, Kyeong-hoon and Sang-woo open themselves to the tranquil beauty of the water, ebbing and flowing against a romantic-charged soundtrack. The blue tones of the Han River also work well in conjunction with the protagonists’ shirts. The pure white that envelops Sang-woo conveys his purity and innocence, his single-minded approach to life, yet Kyeong-hoon’s blue shirt connotes an older, more mature persona. The actors wonderfully articulate such sensibilities through their performances, with Kim Yeong-jae providing a highly effective and restrained performance as the morally-conflicted teacher, palpably displaying his discontent facially. Meanwhile Han Joo-wan connotes his youthful frustrations well, flitting between moments of maturity and adolescence in expressing his desires.

Despite their differing styles, both men clearly harbour a similar emotional discord which unites them, even though society states it is inappropriate. Their confusion is wonderfully articulated through the labyrinthine landscape of the apartment buildings, with the many twists and turns articulating their own psychological dilemmas. It is this moral and psychological complexity that makes Suddenly, Last Summer such a compelling film, and a welcome entry into Korean queer cinema.

Water imagery and colour play important roles in decoding the relationship

Water imagery and colour play important roles in decoding the relationship

Verdict:

Suddenly, Last Summer is a subtle and moving exploration of the relationship between a high school teacher and student. Director Leesong Hee-il delicately inserts information throughout that continually evolves the connection between them, challenging preconceptions while never adopting a moral position, and as such is the best film in the director’s 2012 trilogy.

★★★★☆

Reviews
Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

Q&A with Director Leesong Hee-il (이송희일) – Part 2

Director Leesong Hee-il (이송희일)

Director Leesong Hee-il (이송희일)

To celebrate renowned queer director Lee Song Hee-il’s (이송희일) 2012 film trilogy, Indieplus cinema in Gangnam held a special screening and Q&A event on the 12th of March. In February, feature length film White Night (백야) was screened – the Q&A of which you can read here – while the March event featured a double-bill of short films Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기) and Going South (남쪽으로 간다). All three films are connected thematically as each story depicts two gay characters and the events that transpire between them during the course of several hours.

Suddenly, Last Summer is concerned with a relationship between a thirty-something teacher and a high school student. The film is an intelligent and subtle exploration of psychology and morality, as both protagonist have desires yet are constrained by societal position. The performances are wonderfully restrained and poetic, making the film arguably the best of the trilogy.

Going South, meanwhile, explores homosexuality within the military. The short film employs nature and vibrant colours in conveying conflict between the two central characters, one who wishes to continue their relationship and the other who views homosexuality as merely a phase of military service.

Both short films have been well received – and notably invited to the 2013 BFI London Gay and Lesbian Film Festival – and following the screenings director Leesong fielded questions from the audience, kindly translated by independent producer Hwang Hye-rim (황혜림).

Going South (남쪽으로 간다)

Going South (남쪽으로 간다)

Question: Thank you, I really enjoyed both of the films. They are really touching and moving. With Going South, your sense of colour was really strong – the greens and the browns especially. Can you tell us what feelings you were trying to evoke? Why did you choose those two colours in particular?

Director Leesong: When I was thinking of these three films, colour was one of the things that I was really interested in. So I put a lot of focus on that and I tried to make certain differences between the three films in terms of colour. For example, White Night happens at night so I already had limitations, so I tried to put focus on the colour of the protagonists clothes in that film. And I used a 5D Mark II camera to try and make the lighting match and give focus. I tried to give the film a certain kind of colour and tone. And for Suddenly, Last Summer, water is one of the main images so I tried to show the clothes of the main protagonists like the teacher’s shirt or the white shirt of the school uniform which shows more clearly the differences between them. For Going South, the green colour is the most important colour in the film so I tried to find a location where I can show real green images like a lotus field and forest. I visited several forests to find the perfect green [for the film]. There wasn’t exactly a specific reason I chose green, but what I wanted was to go out of Seoul, out of the city and have distance from the city, to show the least [characteristics] of the city such as buildings. Therefore green became important. I shot this film in Yangsuri which is near Seoul, and is well-known by Seoulites, but I tried to shoot it as if it wasn’t Yangsuri, as if it was some other place. So I went deeper into Yangsuri, and tried to find different spots in the area so that it can look different from what people know. I tried quite hard to find these kind of locations and I really wanted to follow the psychological mindscape of the two protagonists, so that’s why I tried to focus more on their journey and their psychology, and to avoid a cityscape. I needed more [natural] landscape. Even the road when one protagonist kidnaps the other, that road is about 300 meters long and other than that it is surrounded by buildings. That specific spot was something I’ve had in my mind for 5 or 6 years and I was always going to use it in a movie one day, and I finally used it. I tried to remove other kinds of colour as I didn’t want to give you too many colourful images but to just focus on the two people, just the colour green and their emotional journey. If you can remember the character of Jun-young from the film, the man from the city who was discharged from military service, he’s wearing a white shirt so I didn’t want to mix too many more different colours. In the end, I only wanted their emotional development to be shown more than other features.

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기)

(The following question is quite offensive to the gay community, and is purely the opinion of the audience member. It in no way reflects the liberal attitude within Hanguk Yeonghwa).

Question: I think I can understand more about gay people through these films. I think gay issues are well received in American societies, for example, and economically and politically, and in the film market. But in Korean society, I think there is still, not taboo exactly, but more negative responses to gay issues than other societies. So I’d like to know what you are trying to say through your film to [Korean] society where more negative opinions exist. My second question is I’d say that it’s a personal choice, or sexual preference, if you are gay or not. But also there are worries that after two generations that if more and more people choose to be gay, although it’s personal preferences and choices, it’s probably possible that no-one would exist anymore. So some people consider being gay as a bad influence sometimes, so I’d like to know the director’s opinion on that.

Director Leesong: To answer your first question, there wasn’t a big or high intention. It’s just like if you are asking any non-gay filmmakers, or films with non-gay themes, you never ask them what their intentions were, what did they want to say to non-gay society. You don’t ask that, right? So I say, let’s be fair. But when you are facing a filmmaker who is making a film about sexual minorities then you always ask this kind of question, like what was your message to society. There wasn’t a big intention, just to make a film about love, where the main protagonists are sexual minorities. Let’s be fair, you wouldn’t ask that question to heterosexual filmmakers, so you shouldn’t ask me either. As for the second question, I don’t think it just applies to Korean society, it applies to most societies. Most gay people are raised by non-gay parents but they grew up as a gay person. Even if the parents are a gay couple, and they say to their children, “You should be gay”, they wouldn’t all be gay. If they want to love the other sex, then they will. I don’t think it’s a bad influence. As many of you know, the Mayor of Berlin is gay, and at the city hall there are rainbow flags but that doesn’t mean that Berlin is necessarily the only gay-friendly city. It’s embracing gay culture more, but that doesn’t mean everyone in Berlin is gay. I think that by having more sexual minorities speak out helps to develop a more democratic society, so therefore we need to hear more voices, minority groups should have more voices to make a real democracy possible, and make people embrace other people’s differences and opinions. In those terms I think that Korean society still has that kind of tedious democracy, we are still getting there, to have a more developed democracy.

Suddenly, Last Summer explores the relationship between a teacher and student

Suddenly, Last Summer explores the relationship between a teacher and student

Can we lighten up the atmosphere a little bit? Do you have any lighter questions? I think I will sink into a grave, the atmosphere feels like that.

Question: I’m really curious whether the actors in your films are really gay or not.

Director Leesong: What answer would you like?

Question: Just say it [the truth]!

Director Leesong: They are all not gay in real life. But I have to say I can’t really be happy to answer like that. It’s really hard to find anyone, actor or actress, who has freely come out of the closet and said that they are gay or lesbian. There are almost none who have been open about their sexual identities. So it’s not that I searched hard for non-gay actors, it’s the other way. It’s hard to think of anyone who is as beautiful as the actors who are in the films who are gay, that’s why we were laughing. But I should add that there are differences compared to ten years ago, there are younger generations who have more courage to come for an audition for my films, so that’s a big change.

Question: In Going South it was separated into ‘acts’ with the letters. I was wondering if that is more a stylistic or tonal choice, or did you choose that style for a structural choice in telling the story? Or to separate the different moods of each act?

Going South explores homosexual issues within the military

Going South explores homosexual issues within the military

Director Leesong: Well for Going South we shot for six days, so the whole production was like a short film. It was really difficult to show their past with images, it would have taken me a lot of time to show what they have been through together. So I wanted to show their past history together, not through images, but through their letters. I wanted to reveal their past history as the movie moved on and on, but I didn’t want them to talk about it, so the letters revealed their relationship. I don’t think it was necessarily to make an ‘act’. In Korea, serving in the army is compulsory, it’s an obligation. So if you are old enough, an a man, you must go to the army and serve for two years. It’s been like that for a long time. The things that were depicted in the film are happening quite often in the army, and that’s the basic idea. Nowadays I heard that they are doing several kinds of things such as planning sections differently to ‘prevent’ certain kinds of things – the exact expression is ‘anti-gay’ kinds of things. For example, before all the men used to sleep in one big room, but now they have sections so they are separated from each other. Because before they were all sleeping in the same section, and, well, a lot of things happened there. In those terms, this film Going South is quite a cliche. Whether they are gay or not, the army is a huge group of same sex people, and things happen. I just wanted to show the cliche that people know about, and make a story about it. I should tell a funny story because the atmosphere is so serious. I’m actually quite a funny guy! Having this kind of situation in Korea, and having gay men going to the army, creates two different responses. One is like a man sent to a place full of women, so a lot of gay men have a hard time because of the showers and life is difficult for them. But on the other hand there are gay men who are very happy to go to the army, they use the expression, “I’ll be among the flowers,” “I’m in a flower field.” After their army service they brag about things from the army like sex and lovers, stories they tell to their friends.

(Director Leesong then began to discuss about his next project).

Director Leesong: Night Flight‘ is inspired by a real story that happened about two years ago in a high school. There was a student who confessed his sexual identity to his teacher, which should be discrete. It was during a session with the teacher, and he was having a hard time telling him about what was going on in his mind. But the very next day the teacher broadcasted [the student’s sexuality] throughout the school during a broadcasting program. He just said the boy in class ‘B’, for example, is gay and you shouldn’t choose to be gay. It was a really violent response by a teacher, it shows the reality in Korean education, I think. I was thinking whether I should make a film about it or not, and then we had a person who was the education director for Seoul. Before his election we had an act about student rights which prohibited discrimination against students because of their sexuality and gender. But as soon as this new person got elected as the director of education, he said he was going to exclude and eliminate the article about prohibiting discrimination against gay people. That really pissed me off. It really shows the violent reality in Korean schools these days, Korean schools are showing the violence within Korean society. So I decided to make a film about it, dealing with school violence and also living as a gay [student].

Sincere thanks to director Leesong Hee-il for taking the time to answer the questions, to Producer Hwang for translating and to Manger Kwon Mi-hui and Indieplus Cinema for hosting the event.

Directors Interviews/Q&As