What a controversial film says about changing attitudes in South Korea on LGBT issues
THE film’s suggestiveness begins with a toothache. “It hurts,” a lady cries innocently, indulging on a lollipop. Peering into the woman’s mouth, our eponymous Handmaiden notices a sharp tooth jutting into the side of her matron’s cheek. The handmaiden puts on a thimble and slides her finger into her mistress’s mouth: over the next minute, the audience is subjected to an uncomfortably still and achingly sexual shot, the only sound the slow scraping of thimble against tooth.
By the time the credits roll around, Park Chan-wook, the director, has treated the audience to three progressively more risque sex scenes, all of which are quite graphic and guaranteed to make even the most open-minded viewer squeamish. Admittedly, provocative scenes in films have, on a global stage, gone relatively unchallenged for decades. But what is surprising about these scenes is that they are all sexual encounters between two consensual and ostensibly lesbian women. Even more remarkable is that one of this year’s most sexually progressive movies has come out of a country whose political treatment of the gay community is at the very least, troubling.
The Handmaiden has broken box office records in South Korea, dominating the domestic market, but the country’s LGBT community still walks a treacherous path, even in the arts. Earlier in 2016, the Korean national internet censorship commission released a statement denouncing a popular Korean drama, claiming that the depicted lesbian love scenes incited viewers to replicate the sexual acts amongst themselves. The commission blithely went on to suggest that the images deeply violated Korean social order and its ethical values.
Homophobic sentiment is a systemic problem within South Korea’s politics. Formed earlier this year, the Christian Liberal Party (CLP) — promoting a vehemently anti-gay platform — garnered just shy of 3% of the vote in the National Assembly elections, the accumulation of which would have earned a seat in Korea’s main legislative body. Being anti-gay is also not just a minority opinion. The largest political party (by number of legislative seats held) is chaired by Kim Moo-sung, who has often chosen to refer to homosexuality as an “outrage against humanity”. Other politicians go beyond mere rhetoric. In February 2016, Park Young-sun, the leader of the second largest political party (which is nominally socially liberal) described gay rights as “against nature and against God.” Following through with her words, Ms Park has actively blocked legislation that would protect individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, and healthcare.
Yet, as the success of the movie suggests, public opinion is starting to shift. Polls conducted by the Pew Research Center in South Korea in 2007 and 2013 found that attitudes towards homosexuality improved during that period by more than any country in the world. The percentage of those polled who believe that homosexuality should be accepted shot up to 39% in 2013, from 18% six years earlier. Young people are driving the changes: 71% of those aged 18-29 support homosexuality, compared with only 16% among those aged 50 or more.
But for now the power to actually effect change rests not in the hands of the youth, but the old. The average legislator is 58-years-old. Simply based on age, the average politician is statistically less likely to be in support of rights for the gay community at large, which may have stymied the progression of LGBT rights. Although same-sex conduct has never been criminalised in the hermit kingdom, South Korea has been slow to adopt legislation granting the gay community equal rights and protecting it from discrimination. With much of the nation clearly receptive to LGBT issues, legislative change surely cannot be far off. The success of Mr Park’s film may make it a handmaiden of that change.
*Full Credit given to The Economist Events: Pride and Prejudice
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