Shortly after the Oscars, when the winner of Best Picture went to Crash, there was an uproar by those who wanted Brokeback Mountain to win. As a gay-themed picture, it doesn't broach particularly brazen ground, and perhaps that's why it resonated. For every political figure like Harvey Milk, whose murder in the 70s, sparked candlelight vigils and was a key touchstone in the gay rights movement in the United States, there are plenty of others whose relationships develop in places that are far less liberal than San Francisco. Films like Brokeback Mountain are about small towns where a conservatism still holds sway.
But these are pockets of conservative areas in a country that has been dealing with these issues since the 1960s.
What happens if an entire country has kept the subject under wraps. This is what has happened in South Korea. The subject of homosexuality was rarely raised in society, and while there were places were gay Koreans could go, the average straight Korean had no idea.
I just read an article in the New York Times on the film The King and The Clown. It seems to have similar themes to Farewell, My Concubine. This is set in historical Korea, where clowns would travel to entertain, but also to beg for money. These troupes were all-male, and it became common for clowns to establish relations between one another.
In western cultures, we're used to the idea of women having their own opinions and exerting some control. Indeed, it's fairly common for guys to ask permission of their wives to do something. In the past, a man might be more assertive, saying he made all the decisions. Since women couldn't sustain their own livelihood away from the family, they had to put up with this disparity in power. Indeed, men's libidos often hold them imprisoned to the whims of women whose interest they seek.
In eastern cultures, especially those in Southeast Asia (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, etc) where men often work long hours and women tend to kids, there's a sense that men understand each other far better than women, and that they hold a station in society higher than women. Hong Kong films like those directed by John Woo, filled with men in dark sunglasses, and exuding cool, are accused of homoeroticism, which I believe is due to unequal relationship of men and women in society. Still, a barrier often exists that prevent men from being open about their feelings to one another.
King and The Clown has become a wildly successful hit in Korea where an estimated 1 in 4 people have seen this film. The story is about two clowns, one masculine-acting, one feminine-acting who eventually catch eye of the king, who falls for the feminine-acting clown, and the jealousy that this causes.
The topic of homosexuality has rarely been raised, the article goes, until an actor came out a few years ago. He was fired from the show he was on. But due to the unexpected success of this film, which has generated a fair bit of conversation, much as Brokeback Mountain generated conversation.
The conversation should be of different kinds though. Brokeback Mountain has been used by some to mean straight guys experimenting with homosexuality, which is something that straight guys tend to joke about, in any case. It brings into the question the fluidity of sexuality. If it can happen to the traditionally macho cowboy (although technically, they're shepherds, since they herd sheep), then could it happen to couch potatoes?
I suspect that the kinds of conversations being discussed in Korea are the kinds that existed thirty or forty years ago in the United States, except since the rest of the world has already dealt with this, Koreans can, in principle, see these issues even if they watch Asian films. Ang Lee, the director of Brokeback Mountain, started his film career with The Wedding Banquet about a Taiwanese American living in the US who has a boyfriend. His parents want to arrange a marriage for him since he's single. This film is over ten years old. Heck, go to Farewell, My Concubine which even has a similar historical setting. Or check out the recent Tropical Malady by Apichatpong Weerasethakul which takes a modest gay relationship and surrounds it with mythic overtones.
As South Koreans grapple with this issue, it will be interesting to see how South Korean women respond to this. Brokeback Mountain has something to say beyond repressed relationships. It is a film about the growing power of women and men who are seeking ways to deal with a changing society. (Both wives are important breadwinners in their families, and in the case of Jack Twist, his wife runs her dad's company, while he's the show pony).
Despite the differences in the film's audience, both have raised issues that their respective societies are still dealing with, and while I doubt these issues will ever completely disappear, it may, one hope, become less important over time, as people find it as natural as one's hair color, even if there's more to it than that.
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