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Decoding Homosexuality in Korea and the Way it’s Depicted in the Country’s Movies and Dramas

The portrayal of queerness in Korean media today has changed from the time of the Korean War

Debashree Dutta Jun 06, 2022

Photo: Courtesy of HanCinema

During the promotion of his critically acclaimed film Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish, I had the honor of interviewing the great Indian filmmaker, actor, writer, and lyricist, Rituparno Ghosh. I sat with him in his spellbinding house, ‘Tasher Ghawr’ (House of Cards), talking about the film. Chitrangada is a poignant story about two men, Rudra and Partho, who fall in love and wish to adopt a child. When the law denies the petition, Rudra resolves to have sex-change surgery so that they can be considered a couple and earn the right to adopt.

“How would you characterize homosexuality?” I asked Ritu da. “There’s a strong sense of homo-eroticism linked with the word ‘homosexuality,’ since in most cases, homosexual relationships are perceived as lust rather than love,” he said, adding, “We can’t fathom two gay men or women in love sitting and sipping tea together,” further elucidating, “Homosexuality is in nature, but human conduct codifies it to a neologism, and thus the distinction between what’s natural and unnatural remains unclear.” Rituparno Ghosh is no longer with us. But his work and words always make me wonder about his courage in being who he was. Today, as I’m writing this article, I feel compelled to share his invaluable insights.

Homosexuality has been a social taboo in most communities throughout history. As a result, it is unsurprising that homosexuality is not explicitly mentioned in the South Korean Constitution. Gay and lesbian Koreans continue to face difficulties at home and work, and many avoid disclosing their sexual orientation in public. Although South Korea has never fully accepted the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual) community, homosexuality has not been prohibited, except within the military where it’s a punishable offense. Recent surveys show that public opinions of the queer community are changing, with their frequent portrayal in Korean media being one of the greatest examples.

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The Camouflage Age, which lasted from 1998 to 2004, was characterized by an upsurge in the cinematic representation of LGBT groups. The central theme of films of this era camouflaged the element of homosexuality. Memento Mori (1999), for example, was one of the first Korean commercial films to feature lesbian characters. It’s a horror film about a lesbian pair in high school who are bullied to the point of one committing suicide. Things go haywire when the ghost starts haunting the school. The horror element not only obscures the lesbian theme but also provides scope for the audience to empathize with the lesbian couple.

Photo: Courtesy of HanCinema

The inclusion of homosexual undertones became common in Korean dramas like Coffee Prince and Personal Taste between 2005 to early 2010 with King and the Clown (2005) as the most well-known film in mainstream Korean media. The film is credited with establishing the term ‘pretty boy or flower boy,’ as well as expressing concern about consumerism and the marketing of the LGBTQ+ community. The blockbuster hit film was chosen as South Korea’s official submission for the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

During the Silla Dynasty, the ‘Hwarang’, aka the Flowering Knights, was an elite order of male warriors famous for their homoeroticism and beauty. Several wonchung (male lovers) were held in the Goryeo Dynasty’s courts as ‘little brother attendants’ (chajewhi) for the sexual pleasure of King Mokjong and King Gongmin. A Frozen Flower, the 2008 South Korean erotic period saga about the characters’ transgression of royal family decorum in pursuit of love, is partly an illustration of this. It takes place during the Goryo Dynasty, where the king, obligated to continue the lineage through a son, orders his military commander to impregnate the queen. The commander is taken aback by the demand, especially given his previous experience of being in a relationship with the king.

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From 1945 to the present day, the representation of queerness in the Korean media has evolved. For example, women’s freedom and sexuality are superbly conveyed in 2016’s The Handmaiden – an erotic psychological thriller directed by Park Chan-wook. The film was chosen to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and it won ‘Best Film Not in English’ at the 71st British Academy Film Awards. The multiple erotic scenes between the female protagonists generated criticism. However, The New Yorker‘s Jia Tolentino wrote in a review, “The women know what they look like, it seems – they are consciously performing for each other – and Park is deft at extracting the particular sense of silly freedom that can be found in enacting a sexual cliché.”

As per reports, the South Korean government used its Information and Communications Ethics Committee (an official organ of the Ministry of Information and Communication) to restrict gay-content websites from 2001 to 2003. The practice was then discontinued. Though conservative beliefs are prevalent still, South Koreans have become more and more accepting of homosexuality and LGBTQ+ rights since 2010. 

As of 2020, South Korea does not have a national law against discrimination based on sexual orientation. As a result of the changing circumstances, picking homosexuality as a subject in Korean dramas is on the rise. Dramas like Where Your Eyes Linger, My Heart, Wish You, Color Rush, Tinted with You, and others are a strong indication of how the Korean BL (Boy Love) series has only become more popular in recent years. Cherry Blossoms After Winter, Kissable Lips, Love Class, and Semantic Error are just a few more examples of hit Korean content releases that have come out this year under the BL genre.