The Unforgiven

October 6–14, 2005

The 10th edition of Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF), which ran 6-14 October 2005, was a well-concerted celebration of Korean grandeur. One laden with nationalistic pride, as always with the triumphs of an industry, cinema, that has been providing South Korea with a visibility and prestige, in Asia as well as throughout the world, that the country had never prior experienced.

The vigorous stamina of Korean films these days has certainly been a determinant factor in propelling PIFF to the leadership of film festivals in Asia. Either acknowledged or self-proclaimed in the first place, this leadership seems to foster an ongoing contradiction: on the one side, the festival laudably aims to become the neuralgic hub for Asian cinema, most notably by the means of the Pusan Promotion Plan (PPP), the co-production market modelled on Rotterdam’s CinemArt and open to Asian projects; on the other side it remains a local event in terms of audiences, as the incoming foreign portion of spectators is marginal, and almost exclusively restricted to accredited press and professionals.

Wedding Campaign

In the light of this identitary conundrum, the choice of films for the opening and closing ceremonies was quite revealing: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Zuihao de shiguang (Three Times) (2005) played as curtain-raiser, while Naui gyeolhon wonjeonggi (Wedding Campaign) (2005) by Hwang Byung-kuk officially closed the event. Otherwise said, PIFF was book-ended by the latest masterpiece of an Asian master and by a mainstream comedy starring local heartthrob Jeong Jae-yeong that will not raise much attention beyond Korean borders. Worth noticing, the two screenings were preceded by musical performances, respectively from BoA, the undisputed queen of hanryu, (1) and by the Pusan Gayageum Orchestra, whose ensemble of more than one hundred hanbok-dressed players provided a truly suggestive display. Once again a meaningful opposition, played on Korean ground only though: an icon of pop culture bulging over to conquer overseas markets and the testimony of attachment and pride towards specific cultural roots.

Leaving aside the stimulating identitary issues raised by the festival itself, as a space to create and project an image of Korea, mostly to the benefit of Korea itself, but also to the rest of the world, I have to confess that most of my post-festival ruminations centered on one film, and quite appropriately a Korean one.

Judging also from the palmarès of the New Currents competition (2) any external observer would remark the uncontested assertion of Yoon Jong-bin’s Yongseobatji Mothan Ja (The Unforgiven) (2005) as the revelation of the festival. The debut feature of a 26 year-old who graduated in Film Directing at Choongang University no earlier than last February, The Unforgiven racked up a special mention from the official jury (3) and all collateral awards: the Fipresci Award, the Netpac Award and the PSB Audience Award. Such astounding recognition saluted what the official jury simply labelled “an impressive directorial debut”, and was undeniably the film sparkling most controversy and attention prior to and after its screenings.

The Unforgiven claims to be the first Korean film ever to touch the sore point of the 26 month long mandatory army service, depicting psychological and physical violence during enlistment, and posing dilemmas on masculinity and “group macho-ism”. (4) Added to this, the film was presented by catalogue and program notes as nothing less than “the best independent feature film of the year”. (5) The same introduction pinpointed another reason of exceptionalness: a non-normative depiction of relationships between the three main (male) characters, purportedly allowing the flow of homoerotic undercurrents. Two burning issues are at stake then: the army service, and inevitably the military institution as a whole, (6) and the representation of male homosocial desire (7) in Korean cinema. (8)

I myself was intrigued by the dynamite combo, but overall felt disappointed in the treatment of both issues staged by Yoon. To put it in an abrupt manner, I felt the depiction of psychological and physical violence in the military was relatively mild, and I sensed that the repressed homosexual desire was being repressed by the film itself.

I must admit that I qualify the regimented practices of prevarication in The Unforgiven as mild mostly in the light of my recalling of an Italian film, Soldati – 365 Giorni all’alba (Soldiers – 365 Days to Dawn) (Marco Risi, 1987), (9) which in its depiction of the practices of so-called nonnismo (10) feels like a chilling horror compared to Yoon’s film. Therefore, I find myself truly baffled at reading that the Fipresci jury found “harrowing” the psychological violence in The Unforgiven, perhaps just because of my being Italian and their never having heard or Marco Risi’s film. However, the burden (and violence) of a militarised society, based upon coercively imposed order and obedience, has been exposed and critiqued in a more unequivocal manner even in Korean films, namely those dealing with the scholastic institution, such as Yoo Ha’s Maljukgeori Chanhoksa (Once Upon a Time in High School: Spirit of Jeet Kune Do) (2004). (11)

The Unforgiven

What The Unforgiven is really good at, instead, is dissecting how the system of seniority works and reproduces itself, regardless of the declared critical attitudes of single individuals. In this respect the repetitive cycles through which dialogues and situations recur are highly effective, as is the double narrative presentation, where present and past unfold side by side. This strategy of mirroring, which follows characters Tae-jung (Ha Jung-woo) and Seung-young (Seo Jang-won) during service and when the latter, during a permit, pays visit to the former who has in the meantime been discharged, bears also the merit of conveying another eye-opening intuition: the desire and will to obliterate the experience in the military allows and reinforces the persistence of violence, while it also spreads seeds of indifference (and prevarication) in the society as a whole.

These considerations aside, anyhow, I wouldn’t feel comfortable in subscribing to the statement of the Fipresci jury that “The film suggests that the pent-up violence that explodes in such highly stylised popular entertainments as A Bittersweet Life and Oldboy may have its roots in the brutality inflicted by military discipline and an authoritarian social structure – elements which may have passed from Korean society as a whole but which linger on in the life in the barrack.” Contentions that such simplistic equation sends to oblivion six centuries of rigid Confucianism de facto inculcated by the Chosun Dinasty, in terms of the disciplined and authoritarian manner in which Korean society is (still) structured, and lightheartedly circuits the osmotic interrelation between films and the culture and society that produces them, bypassing the specificity of geopolitical coordinates aside, I would suggest that such “suggestions” were possibly engendered more by readings of the film facilitated by the paratext attached to it, than on what is actually inscribed in the text itself. A suspicion that becomes certitude when dealing with readings related to the second issue, whose treatment elicited the appraise of the Netpac jury, bestowing its award to The Unforgiven for its critical reflection on “masculinity”, not only in Korea or in the military, but in contemporary society in general. Indeed a critical reflection on masculinity, The Unforgiven is nevertheless questionable in how it performs this reflection.

First, it is worth noticing that references to the homoerotic undercurrents in the film are nowhere to be found in production notes and director’s statements, (12) but are only traceable in the catalogue description, which already presents itself as a (subjective) critical reading of the film. By means of that very reference, I found myself looking forward for representation of gender identity in a Korean film that would finally allow space to non-normative (read heterosexual) relationships and sexuality. (13) And I actually found nothing of that. Was I mislead by that catalogue presentation? Of course, yet this offered me food for thought. (And yes, the abovementioned certitude that my idiosyncratic reading of the film was facilitated by paratext).

Especially because I was not the only one who was induced to “queer” readings of The Unforgiven. French newspaper Libération hailed Yoon’s film as the sole discovery of the festival, just for reason of its “braveness” in presenting a homosexual relationship in the military. Not only do I not subscribe to this accolade, but I find it outrageously wrong, since The Unforgiven proves instead a missed opportunity for Korean filmmaking to address sexual identity with truthful open-mindedness.

The Unforgiven

Besides the generally perceived feeling that the relationship between Tae-jung and Seung-young may be “too close” (which is diegetically interpreted by superiors as Tae-jung being over-protective and too lenient with his junior), the only instance in the film that allows the audience to perceive Seung-young as being attracted to Tae-jung is one sequence where a senior steals him a letter addressed to Tae-jung. The content of the letter appears elusive, yet its overtones produce the senior’s bewilderment, as well as the viewer’s certainty that there is something going on there. However, this episode literally remains a dead letter. Acts crossing the borderlines of homoeroticism are instead displaced onto senior officers who ask juniors to pull down their pants to inspect their underwear or startle them by stroking their crotches.

As a result, the film denies possible recognition to a full-blown homosexual relationship between Tae-jung and Seung-young, as well as the identification of Seung-young as bearing homosexual tendencies, rather than just being a weak and dependant character. Homoerotic tension appears instead spread and diffused over the barracks, in reason of the all-male environment that prompts alternative ways of sublimating desire. (14)

Even when Tae-jung and Seung-young meet again in civilian life – after the latter has called the former because he has “something to tell him” – never do we have the chance of factually clinching to the impression that Tae-jung might be afraid of knowing what Seung-young wants to tell him. Just because we never know what Tae-jung was expecting Seung-young to tell him! Whereas we will eventually know what Seung-young wanted to tell him, while he won’t (the circumlocution might sound far-fetched to those who haven’t seen the film, but I don’t want to give away the final denouement). Yet this mechanic based upon the untold, which keeps the film suspenseful, eventually frustrates and literally kills the possibility of detecting and unmasking ambiguity in Seung-young’s attachment to Tae-jung.

In my interview with him, Yoon told me he was aware that Seung-young’s attachment to Tae-jung may be read as homosexual attraction, but he was more interested in “his fragility, his emotional dependency on Tae-jung, and ultimately his inadequacy to military life”. As for the reason why Tae-jung seems uncomfortable about meeting with Seung-young after he’s been discharged, to Yoon it is plainly because “Seung-young by his very presence reminds him of the experience in the military, which he is striving to forget.” (15)

Added to this, Yoon himself plays the part of the third corner in the film’s lead triangle, a character whose main trait is his tragicomic dumbness, who is hung like a horse (that’s the finding of the senior inspecting his crotch!), and who is the only one in the trio to have a girlfriend. The event that drives him to eventual suicide (sorry for the spoiler!) will in fact be the breakup with his fiancée. Not so much room for gay or queer sides to the character. If not in the “special attention” Seung-young devotes to him, in a mirroring of Tae-jung relation to Seung-young; even so, such attachment is deprived of (and denied) conscious recognition by the sheer dumbness of the character.

In its meticulous accounting of the dynamics of prevarication between seniors and juniors during the military service, The Unforgiven certainly transpires the critical attitude of Yoon. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t do much more than that. It is a critical reflection on the idea of masculinity, in the true sense that it reflects, mirrors, the way normative definitions of manhood are produced and reproduce themselves.

However, there is no attempt in the film to deconstruct or attack the fundaments of this very macho culture. This lack appears transparent in the systematic reticence and denial (in and out of the text itself) of the many possible hints towards homoeroticism investing the main characters. Provided that the homosocial setting allowed to queerly undermine a dominant idea of masculinity, just by slightly veering in the continuum towards homosexual, Yoon’s failure in doing so only displaces forgetfulness and guilty conscience, denying once again not recognition, but simple representation to non strictly orthodox, heterosexual male characters in Korean cinema.

The Peter Pan Formula

A destabilising deconstruction of masculinity was instead at play in another competing title, Cho Chang-ho’s Peter Panui gongshik (The Peter Pan Formula), no doubt the most daring Korean debut of 2005. In Cho’s film, teen swimming talent Han-su (On Ju-wan) is faced with a dramatic coming of age crisis. As soon as he decides to give up swimming (“I would never be anything more than the champ of Asia!”), his mother attempts suicide by ingesting ant poison, and ends up bed-ridden in a coma. In his mother’s suicide letter Han-su finds the contact for a never-known father, while a piano teacher moves in to the house next door, lighting up his adolescent desire. The constellation of female characters surrounding Han-su is completed by a university student, whose mother is also in a coma, and who performs euthanasia on her in the unseen presence of Han-su, and the stepdaughter of the piano teacher, who is recovering from a trauma in a mental institution.

Not only does Han-su’s impasse play against the backdrop of a gallery of characters displaying a comprehensive declination of the plight of womanhood, but it also encompasses a thorough and violent rejection of the father figure. As some have objected, Cho may be relying too heavily on oedipal and mirror image metaphors, however, the arresting outcome of Han-su’s search for himself, leaving him lingering between a return to the maternal uterus and a seemingly unattainable (and undesired) adult manhood, obliquely poses questions on male identity that result in a much more disturbing and provoking than the frontal, yet comfortable braveness of The Unforgiven.

Endnotes

  1. Hanryu is the word describing the Korean wave of films, pop music and TV dramas that has been hitting the whole East Asia in the last five years or so. The actual pronunciation sounds as “hallyu”.
  2. The New Currents is the sole competitive section of PIFF, and it is open to Asian debut and sophomore films only.
  3. Headed by Abbas Kiarostami, the official jury awarded the main prize to Zhang Lu’s Mang Zhong (Grain in Ear) and a further special mention to Jinjing de Manishi (The Silent Holy Stones) by Wanma Caidan.
  4. According to director Yoon’s notes in the promotional flyer, under the heading “Forgetting and a guilty conscience, my dilemma about masculinity”.
  5. The closing remark of its film note authored by Huh Moon-yung.
  6. Reportedly, Yoon had to submit a fake screenplay to military institutions in order to obtain permission to shoot on location in real barracks.
  7. I borrow here Eve Sedgwick’s terminology in a non-rigorous manner, yet putting a stress on her idea of a “continuum between homosocial and homosexual”. See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, Columbia UP, New York, 1985.
  8. A fundamental discussion on queer issues in Korea and Korean cinema is provided by Chris Berry in “My Queer Korea: Identity, Space, and the 1998 Seoul Queer Film & Video Festival”, an article to which the title of this report pays embarrassed homage.
  9. Soldati – 365 Giorni all’alba was the first attempt for Marco Risi (son of Dino Risi, master of commedia all’italiana in the ‘50s and ‘60s) to incept what Italian critics labelled back then as neo-neorealism. Describing a rediscovered interest in everyday reality and a pragmatic and uncompromising approach to Italy’s social problems, the short-lived definition applied to a couple more films by Risi (most notably his best, Mery per Sempre [Forever Mery] [1989]) and a few others.
  10. A literal translation would sound as “grandfatherism”, yet the appropriate equivalent in English is “seniority”. The term only applies to the military jargon though, and refers to the psychological and mostly physical violence during military service. Cases of badly ending “jokes” or suicides were not infrequent. Fortunately, military service is no longer mandatory in Italy.
  11. For an overview on this film see www.koreanfilm.org/bertolin-ouatihs.html.
  12. I refer here to the abovementioned flyer and to an interview with Yoon published on the Day 5 edition of the festival daily edited by The Korea Times, but also to my own interview with Yoon, published on Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, where such issue was raised only in response to an explicit question.
  13. Korean feature films addressing the issue of homosexuality in recent years include two works, Beonjijeompeureul hada (Bungee Jumping of Their Own) (Kim Dae-seung, 2001) and Road Movie (Kim In-sik, 2002) that, despite good intentions, eventually legitimate same sex relationships or homosexual characters by re-inscribing or rephrasing them in heterosexual paradigms. For an interview where Kim In-sik overtly states this purpose, see www.koreanfilm.org/kiminsik.html.
  14. In this respect, Marco Risi’s film was once again more frank. Not that I am here forgetting the different standards of censorship and general public’s attitude towards sex in Korea, still these are further parameters on which the “braveness” of a film should be measured.
  15. The interview appeared in Italian newspaper Il Manifesto on 27 October and engendered a funny misunderstanding sapidly related to the above discussion. Published under the title “Sadici amori tra le mura di una caserma” (“Sadistic loves between walls of barracks”, a title for which I bear no responsibility) the article urged programmers from Turin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival to call me and ask details about the film and print sources. I of course did my best to explain that the title was misleading and cautioned them about the marginal relevance of gay issues in the film. An English version of the interview is available at www.koreanfilm.org/yoonjb.html.

About The Author

Paolo Bertolin is an Italian film critic and journalist. He has contributed to a wide range of Italian publications, including film magazine Cineforum and newspaper Il Manifesto. His writings in English include articles for The Korea Times, The Jakarta Post and on www.koreanfilm.org.