'half': Busan Review
Transgender rights are at the forefront of Kim Se-yeon’s current South Korean drama based on a true story
At a time when transgender rights and freedoms are increasingly in the news and in a climate where it remains acceptable to throw around transgender slurs, writer-director Kim Se-yeon’s half (officially lower case and based on a true story) aims to be an enlightening wake-up call to some of those issues. Following the plight of an alienated transgender woman on trial for murder, Kim marries social issues with courtroom drama in an attempt to make a “difficult” subject palatable to the masses but sadly misses the mark. Half is just strong enough technically to be considered for LGBT festivals in most parts of the world, though occasional sound issue and some truly wretched subtitles could prove stumbling blocks. The film was supported by the Korean Film Council, which may want to consider a fresh set of subs before any real overseas marketing following its world premiere at Busan.
The story starts in a drag bar called The Secret where Min-A, born Min Su (television actor Ahn Yong-jun), is transitioning professionally from back up singer to prime performer, and personally from male to female. The group includes her closest friend Yu Ri (Jin Hye-kyung), star Pink (Mun Se-yun) and the mercenary So-hee (Kim Hae-rim), who nonetheless is part of this unconventional family headed by Sister Wang (Song Young-kyu), the club manager. They are also Min A’s only support network, as she’s been disowned by her seamstress mother (Kim Young-sun), who’s ashamed of her transgender identity.
On her way to work one evening, Min-A sees Yu Ri taking a brutal beating from her on-and-off boyfriend and tries to intervene. It goes badly of course and Min-A winds up hitting the man with a lead pipe, killing him. What follows is a breakdown of her trial—in the court, in the media and in public opinion—and most crucially, her fight to be housed at a women’s correctional facility during trial. Nobody wants her; the men’s jail makes her a bigger target for sexual assault and the women’s jail views her a man and a symbol of all their troubles. Watching, and seemingly awakened to new injustices by all this, is Min-A’s public defender Kim Ki-ju (Jeong Yoo-seok), in his last pro bono case ahead a cushy job with a big private law firm.
Tragic dramas about the discrimination, irrational fear and ignorance of transgender people rarely get as Shakespearean as half. But for all its lofty goals, there’s a facile undertone that strips the film of any power. Ahn’s performance inappropriately flirts with sketch comedy status, with a wealth of obviously furrowed brow, outrageously wide doe eyes and hunched shoulders signaling fear, frustration, resignation and only a hint of fury—and only hints of agency. The slow dramatic walks from one cell block to the next extend to the prison guards, making those sequences looks like experimental community theater. As the callous lawyer who comes to see the light, Jeong is serviceable in the Denzel Washington role in Philadelphia (the slow maturity indicated by a change in age in the older film, by a change in name use in half) but the screenplay does little to make his growth organic. Despite its flaws, though, half does have some affecting moments, chief among them the closing sequence that finds Min-A off her hormones and forced back into her unwanted male body. Half would have been better served by more of those small intimate moments than by its bloated, sub-Perry Mason theatrics.
Production company: Mindullae Pictures
Cast: Ahn Yong-jun, Jeong Yoo-seok, Song Young-kyu, Jin Hye-kyung
Director: Kim Se-yeon
Screenwriter: Kim Se-yeon
Producer: An Hee-chul, Jo Chang-ho
Executive producer: Lee Jun-ho
Director of photography: Kim Hyun-tae
Production designer: Lee Ji-yeon
Costume designer: Han Myeong-suk
Editor: Jung Jin-hee
No rating, 110 minutes