South Korean LGBT Community in Spotlight in Cinemas, Media

1:34 AM PST 06/09/2014 by Lee Hyo-won

The conservative Asian country saw the debut of "High Heel," a star-studded action film tackling transgender issues, amid the opening of the annual Korea Queer Festival, which Google and the U.S. embassy supported.

SEOUL — Over what was a long holiday weekend here, the South Korean LGBT community, often stigmatized, found itself at the center of attention of the country's mainstream media, creating buzz across the evening news and nationwide cinemas.

High Heel, a star-studded action film tackling transgender issues, took the sixth place ($1.82 million) in the Korean weekend box office — in spite of competition from Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Maleficent (which ranked first, third and fourth, respectively).

Plus, the country's major media covered the Korea Queer Festival's biggest, and most controversial, edition yet. The event took place with support from Google and the U.S. embassy.

In High Heel, popular actor Cha Seung-won made headlines for playing the role of a tough detective who conceals his womanliness behind his macho facade, before finally deciding to leave his job and undergo transsexual surgery. "At first I was skeptical about the public reception for the film, but I had faith that the director would portray my character with integrity," said Cha about director Jang Jin.

Jang explained that he was inspired by his actual sexual minority friends for the film he penned and directed. "I've always been interested in subject matters and themes that lie outside of conventional norms and values, more so than wanting to explicitly make a transgender film. I hope I did justice [to the LGBT community]," he said.

Though best known for comedies such as Guns and Talks and Good Morning President, he has been noted for pioneering a new genre of "emotional noir" films via High Heel.

The film's opening could not have been timely enough as the 15th Korea Queer Festival opened on Saturday amid much public attention.

The Seodaemun-gu district government withdrew its approval for the festival's opening, but the event nevertheless took place to draw a record 15,000 people. The U.S., French and German embassies in Korea as well as Google also officially supported the festival for the first time.

However, adding to the mass of festival-goers were large-scale demonstrations by conservative Christian groups and an army of policemen stationed to prevent possible casualties. The festival's signature pride parade was held three hours longer than planned as protestors blocked the procession.

"There were many difficulties opening this year's festival, amid how the Seodaemun-gu government canceled its initial approval and anti-LGBT protests. However, we were able to safely wrap up the festival thanks to support from local vendors and residents. There will continue be challenges ahead, but we will always try our best to pass on the message of hope and support for Korea's sexual minorities," said the festival's head Kang Myeong-jin.

Korea has held a rather contradictory position when it comes to officially and publicly recognizing the LGBT community.

Seoul has been home to rather sizeable and colorful LGBT districts, including the far-from-subtly named "Home Hill" in Itaewon, but it wasn't until 2000 that it saw a local celebrity to come out of the closet for the first time. Actor Hong Suk-chun had been virtually banned from the industry. Today, however, he thrives as one of the country's most successful restaurateurs while being a fixture on primetime entertainment and comedy programs as an LGBT rights spokesperson.

Nevertheless, there have been limitations in the portrayal of sexual minorities in mainstream media. Kim Jho Gwang-soo, one of Korea's most outspoken gay filmmakers, found himself at odds with the Korea Media Rating Board over his gay romance film last year. Eventually the Korean Supreme Court sided with the director to overturn the board's "teenagers restricted" rating for featuring a heavy kissing scene between two men.

Kim Jho also held the country's first public gay wedding ceremony last year, and filed an administrative litigation and constitutional appeal as Korea has yet to legalize same-sex marriages.

Meanwhile, the 14th Korea Queer Film Festival is due to take place June 12-15 under the theme "Love Conquers Hate," with support from the French Culture Center in Korea.

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