[Herald Review] Gender identity quest, noir or comedy

By Korea Herald

‘High Heel’ portrays detective’s coming out, while ‘Me, Myself and Mum’ explores young man’s counter-coming out

  • Published : Jun 8, 2014 - 20:42
  • Updated : Jun 8, 2014 - 20:42
Many new film releases have drawn audiences to the theater, especially during the long weekend thanks to the local elections and Memorial Day.

Of those, two come into focus as they explore a theme that has not yet been examined thoroughly in Korean films: the coming out narrative.

Themes like homosexuality and transgender have kept a low profile in Korea, a society with strong Confucian traditions that regard the subjects as absolute social taboo. But recently, the topic of homosexuality has become more tolerable to the public through more open and blunt viewpoints and expressions, slowly moving from the backroom to the limelight.

“High Heel,” directed by Jang Jin and “Me, Myself and Mum,” directed by Guillaume Gallienne, feature male protagonists who are confused about their sexual identities. 
Cha Seung-won plays a homicide detective who wants to become a woman in the newly released “High Heel” by director Jang Jin. (Lotte Entertainment)

Yoon Ji-wook, played by Cha Seung-won in “High Heel,” is a homicide detective whose macho looks match his undisputed ability to nab violent criminals. But deep inside, his identity is quite different. Ji-wook has long desired to become a woman. When no one is around, he puts on red lipstick, false eyelashes and high heels to fulfill his inner desire.

Guillaume Gallienne, who plays himself in “Me Myself and Mum,” is a young man raised by a mother who presumes he is gay. When he was 4 years old, his mother would call her three sons to dinner by saying: “Boys and Guillaume, come and eat!” He is not a typical French boy. He does not like to sweat while playings sports but rather spends his free time dressing up as empress Sissi and princesses. He enjoys his frequent salon trips with his mother to have his hair styled.

While Ji-wook and Guillaume both share the experience of dealing with a sexual identity crisis, their perception and style is tellingly distinctive.

Ji-wook tries to suppress his inner femininity by becoming more brutal and masculine, cracking down on crime with his two bare fists. After spending his life in a male-dominated police station, he finally reaches the point where he decides to walk away from his masculinity and live life as a woman through surgery.

But it is no easy choice, as his decision affects his loved ones.

He puts on thick makeup with black mascara, wears a wig and looks at himself with tearful eyes in the mirror.

“God maybe has forgotten to take care of us, because there are too many ― those left behind God’s sight,” Ji-wook says with mixed feelings between earnest desire and reality weighing upon him.

Ji-wook’s grief and inner angst permeates his ferocious actions. The blood spattered scene overlaps with his red high heels, between reality and dream.

On a less somber note, director and actor Galliene used comical and theatrical interpretation to explore his view on identity crisis.

The movie follows Guillaume’s narration as he grows up to believe he is gay, perceived by his family because of his queer taste. He enjoys full body spas over soccer matches, and a summer language trip to Spain over a hiking trip to Grand Canyon with his father and brother. He keenly observes girl’s unique posture and mannerisms to mimic them, especially his mother. He even has a crush on the handsome swimmer at school. No one in the family assumed Guillaume was straight, even his father who wants Guillaume to act like a typical son. 
Guillaume Gallienne stars as a young man searching for his gender identity in the newly released “Me, Myself and Mum.” (Pancinema)

But everything changes when he grows affection for a girl named Amandine. Guillaume goes through a unique counter-coming out narrative as he has to accept the fact that he likes women, which is a total identity shock for him. As he discovers who he really is, he has to make a confession to his dear mom, who might be disappointed at this news.

The film, as it is originally based on Galliene’s eponymous one man act play, talks about gender identity in an offbeat approach. Guillaume’s crisis cannot be only defined as a mere sexual identity confusion, but it is considered a part of coming-of-age struggles in finding who he really is and outgrowing his parent‘s expectations.

Guillaume in the film, although a gender minority, is not portrayed as an oppressed or discriminated victim in society. There are times when he is ridiculed by his brothers, but most of time, he accepts who he is and enjoys dressing up and sipping tea with his mother and aunts, a clear contrast with Ji-wook who must hide who he really is.

“I wanted to question the social norm, the often unspoken rules of our society,” said director Jang. It is a sad portrayal of a man who faces social prejudice and cannot live freely on his own desire. He represents all the people who have to hide themselves to be socially acceptable.”

If Jang wanted to talk about this socially sensitive matter with the noir-infused drama peppered with fierce actions, then Galliene decided to tackle it a wry smile and a sense of humor.

Both movies are expected to trigger a diverse range of views on the topic of sexual identity.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)