Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Not For the Squeamish

In his audio commentary for the Korean DVD of Kim In-shik's Road Movie, film writer Tony Rayns describes the opening sex scene as "brutal." May I comment that I don't see it that way? In the first place, this scene and the later one with a worker in a teahouse look less "brutal" than acrobatic to me; sort of like Dae-shik's Homo-Aerobic Workout Video. I'm reminded of the way many viewers reacted to the opening sex scene in Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together: terms like "rough sex, "dysfunctional", and the like appeared with scandalized prurience in print discussion of the film. Well, that's us homosexuals for you.

To my queer eye, however, that scene suggested words like "breathtaking" and "intimate"; it depicted a long term couple who know what works for them. Lai Yu-fai's (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) voice-over narration establishes the context: they've been together six years on and off, and whenever Ho Po-Wing says "We could start over," it gets him right here. The intensity of the scene comes from two long-term partners reunited after separation -- no wonder Ho gobbles Lai hungrily. As for "rough," that probably came from the light slap Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing delivered to Leung's ass as they wrestled playfully on the bed. Not exactly whips and chains and bruises, but... the eye of the beholder, darling. Or maybe: it takes one to know one.

On first viewing it's also easy to miss the edit between the foreplay and the homestretch to orgasm, which makes the sex feel rushed. Once that is taken into account, the scene seems merely realistic to me. I wish it were longer and more leisurely myself, but I suspect Wong knew that a longer, more "romantic" version would have driven homophobic audiences screaming from the theater: Eeeeeek! Two men! Having sex! That is so gay! And not just any two men, but two big Hong Kong stars! Like, my ghod! ... which is, of course, a major part of what I like about it. I want more. Please, Sir, can I have a little more?

In the second place, I detect in "brutal" a certain queasiness about the body that in the West dates back to Shakespeare at least. It's a gut level belief that nice sex isn't sweaty, noisy, or messy; by preference it should be soft-focus, candlelit, hushed, with a New Age or cool jazz soundtrack, and no noisome body fluids emitted, let alone exchanged. (I always loved to observe audience reactions to the closeup, in Lizzie Borden's Working Girls, of a used condom being wrapped in a tissue and deposited in the trash -- with lots of liquid squelching sound effects. Or the scene in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, where Saddam Hussein mounts and penetrates a whimpering Satan in total darkness, with similar slippery mucous noises on the soundtrack.) That may just be me, of course, but I think Road Movie's final sex scene bears me out. When you're In Love (or at least having a mercy fuck, as here), Sex Is Beautiful: nearly silent, dry, and clean. Maybe it would be nice if it were so, but it isn't so.

Third, "brutal" should be questioned because of the scene that follows the opening, where Dae-shik's pickup begs him to stay on. Would he do so if he'd just had brutal sex inflicted on him? It isn't gay sex, or even that sex scene, that is the problem so much as Dae-shik's self-hatred. The pickup, also Korean, doesn't seem to suffer from it. (Think what a very different breakthrough queer Korean film could have been made by making the pickup the main character.)

Road Movie is a much more conventional, and so less realistic work than Happy Together. It can be viewed as a three-hanky male weeper in the Glengarry Glenn Ross mode, about the pain of being a man in an uncaring, un-understanding world. It's also an advocacy tract in the mode of Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia, which teaches that minorities deserve our sympathy because they suffer beautifully and die at the end. (The only good queer is a dead queer -- an enduring principle of homosexual literature.) Gay self-pity is so much less threatening than gay pride; phobes want to be reassured that we don't really enjoy our nasty, brutal, and short lives. Family must be as unattainable as love. We can only wander in isolation until death releases us.

I don't believe in linear, developmental models of history, so it's not clear to me why Korean queer films (or life) must use these worn-out Western tropes and models. The rationale seems to be: Korean society is totally conservative, not ready to accept gays, and therefore Korean queer representations of the 1990s and after must begin by imitating or reinventing Western representations from the 1950s or earlier. If all goes well, in a century or two it will be possible to move forward from there. Get over it, children: The Well of Loneliness is, like, so 1928; it's been done.

In general, even many Western scholars of Asian queer culture exhibit near-total ignorance of Western queer culture, which is not surprising given the embattled and rudimentary status of queer studies in Western academia at present -- where would they learn what they need to know? Many if not most Asian scholars of Asian queer culture, at least those who publish in English, have been educated in the West, so their ignorance isn't surprising either. But that doesn't excuse the invidious and often homophobic generalizations they feel compelled to make about queer life and culture here.

It's true that tragedy, to say nothing of Liebestod, plays an enduring role in heterosexual love stories as well. But Road Movie is bathos, not tragedy. Thirty-five years after Stonewall, neutral (let alone affirmative) depictions of queers simply living their lives remain in short supply. Stephen Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette is still a beautiful, tantalizing anomaly, the exception that proves the rule -- a story of two boys in love that isn't "about" being gay.

This problem accompanies an Othering of the queer past by queers ourselves. In the bad old days (so the story goes), gays lived lives of fear, guilt, and isolation, often ending in suicide if some kindly phobe or speeding bus didn't come along to put us out of our misery -- so unlike us modern liberated Homo-Americans full of gay pride and a 30% suicide rate! Substance abusers! Victims of hate crimes! Pity us as we pity ourselves!

The Well of Loneliness is emblematic of this mythos, even or especially among those who've never read it. Or The Children's Hour -- remember, US society was so homophobic that the first film version had to be heterosexualized. Few people nowadays can have seen Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent (let alone read Allen Drury's novel), in which a closeted Senator, threatened with blackmail, kills himself. Many, though, will have seen excerpts from the film in The Celluloid Closet, a useful but flawed documentary that perpetuates the very stereotypes it deplores.

When a young lesbian friend of mine was reading The Well of Loneliness, I urged her to look also at Radclyffe Hall's other novels The Unlit Lamp (1924) and A Saturday Life (1925), both written before Well but depicting mythic mannish lesbians in a much less doom-laden way. A Saturday Life, in fact, is a comic novel. I could also point the interested reader to Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show (1936), a remarkable historical novel set in mid-1800s France in which two women fall in love with each other, just like that, without benefit of Ani Di Franco CDs or Eddie Bauer apparel. Or to James Barr's Quatrefoil (1950), in which two butch sailor men fall in love and make it last. Or Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964), a witty and humane religious novel about aging and mortality whose main character is queer and not particularly tortured about it. Or Sanford Friedman's Totempole (1965), about a tortured young American fag who comes to accept himself through an affair with a North Korean POW.

I could go on, but I hope you see my point. There's a lot of queer fiction from before 1969 in which the characters possess or find the courage to reject self-pity. (One of the achievements of gay scholarship has been to rediscover works like these and stress their importance over against the iconic works of heterosexual supremacy.) It has always been possible to do so; when artists have not done so, it was an artistic and moral choice to represent queers as wretched cripples. Neither artists nor critics should presume to claim this choice was a necessity; it wasn't.

(Again, I'm not constructing here a linear progression from self-hatred to acceptance, which historically is false anyhow, but pointing out that both attitudes have always coexisted. If self-hatred has been more visible, it's because homophobic straights have been more tolerant of depictions of queer life as a vale of tears; and because homophobic queers found it satisfying to view themselves as martyrs.)

The question, then, is why artists make this choice. To explore the answer fully is beyond the scope of this article. For now I'll just point briefly to overt censorship by government or publishers; to moral choice on the part of the artist, queer or straight, who genuinely believes that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered; to artistic choice, using anti-queer tropes as nodes of dramatic or narrative tension; or as in Road Movie, as political strategy to win sympathy for the downtrodden. Aside from my personal and principled distaste for this strategy, I don't believe it works very well. I have never heard of a bigot changing his or her mind because of it.

It might also be useful to remember that even in South Korean cinema it is possible to depict same-sex lovers in different ways: the earnest, awkwardly liberal Bungee Jumping of their Own, for instance, or the sweetly subversive and underrated Wanee and Junah. (To say nothing of Asian movies from outside Korea, such as The Accident and Hold You Tight from Hong Kong, both of which have happy but not unrealistic endings.) It may be that in time, Road Movie will look different. As the Korean critic Jung Jae-hyung points out (in "Road Movie: Queerish Reasonableness of Nomadic Existence", Film Critiques: FIPRESCI Korea vol. 3 [Seoul: Happy House, 2004], it draws on specifically Asian traditions of itinerancy that might appear more prominent as homosexuality becomes less of a hot-button issue in Korea. More good Korean queer films could contextualize Dae-Sik not as a tautologically self-hating homosexual but as a self-hating man. But self-hatred is not very interesting to me, personally or artistically, so I doubt I'll ever enjoy Road Movie despite its fine photography, acting, and other technical virtues. I doubt it will age as well as it might, had writer/director Kim In-sik made other artistic and moral choices. (As he tells it in this interview, the choice wasn't his: he was hired to make a movie about a gay man who dies in the end.) The wandering theme could have been handled as well, or better, with two men who didn't agonize over their sexualities. Or it could have been about a wandering gay man who picks up men along the way, not because he doesn't believe in love but because he doesn't believe in monogamy. As it stands, homosexuality is a distraction in Road Movie.

One final qualification: In an interview clip from The Celluloid Closet, actor/writer Harvey Fierstein declared, " ... my view has always been, visibility at any cost. I'd rather have negative than nothing." For those queers who wanted Hollywood to bless us with its cinematic attention, the alternatives historically have usually been "negative" or "nothing." Even dreck like Advise and Consent acknowledged that queers (barely) exist. The most negative images can be, and have been, a lifeline to young and/or isolated queers, reassuring them that somewhere there are others like them. (And what's "negative" to me might not be negative to you. As Fierstein also said, "I like the sissy ... because I am a sissy." Me too. But that also opens horizons that are beyond the scope, etc.) Road Movie may give hope to some young Korean fagling, who might even look at Dae-Shik and say to himself, not "Oh, god, I'm doomed!" but "My god, what a dork! Why didn't he, like, get over himself? And what's the phone number of that cute guy he dumped at the start of the movie?"