Hyun-ju Lee is a South Korean screenwriter, editor and director. Her first feature film, Our Love Story, premiered at San Sebastián, Vancouver, and Jeonju, where it won the Grand Prize for Best Korean Film.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Hyun-ju Lee discusses depictions of homosexual relationships in contemporary cinema, the hope for a society without repression, and her next project.
FILMATIQUE: Your debut feature, Our Love Story, was a remarkable success in South Korea. What inspired you to make this film, and how was the journey? Was it difficult to get your first feature funded?
HYUN-JU LEE: This film got funded by the Korean Academy of Film Arts where I studied filmmaking. Due to a tight budget, indeed, I was under certain limitations. However I believe that the crew— including the producer, camera crew, actors, and even I— were able to achieve something significant as a group of people with no experience in feature film production prior to this film.
It was more difficult to release this film in movie theaters in South Korea than it was to produce it. However, thanks to Jeonju International Film Festival and the enthusiasm of audiences there, this film has finally entered into theaters.
In spite of our limitations— unknown actors, a shoestring budget, the theme of homosexuality and an R rating— I was lucky to have the full support of the Korean Academy of Film Arts, my colleagues, and the audiences of Our Love Story.
FLMTQ: Many of your films, from shorts Distance and Ordinary Family to Our Love Story, capture love stories between lesbians. What in particular interests you about the representation of these stories on screen?
HL: The current situation surrounding lesbians in South Korea clearly motivated my interest. I would say that they are invisible, although they are everywhere. In other words, they are hardly able to tell their family or friends about their relationships. Despite the fact that most Koreans draw a fine picture of love overcoming obstacles such as borders or age, it seems that they still discriminate against queers. If a discourse of homosexuality were no longer particular, I would have explored a different theme.
FLMTQ: How do you feel about current cinematic representations of lesbian love stories— for example, in art-house films like Todd Haynes’ Carol or Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden? How did you seek to distinguish your approach from these examples?
HL: First of all, I am honored for Our Love Story to be aligned with such profound films.
I would like to distinguish a recent trend in queer cinema by saying that, unlike past depictions, recent films attempt to dismantle the fantasy of homosexual figures. We are able to observe such a change via a comparison of Todd Haynes' Poison and Carol.
However, it is still difficult to conclude that queer cinema has a certain tendency towards capturing specific characters nowadays, because the number of queer films are so limited. This is why The Handmaiden, Chan-wook Park’s lesbian film released in the commercial film market in South Korea, was impressive. Even now, we barely find lesbian films in the domain of independent cinema.
Unlike conventional queer cinema, which demands a sense of equality, Our Love Story adopts a cynical attitude towards common negative experiences of love regardless of sexuality. To highlight this I chose to use '연애 (love, 戀愛)' rather than '사랑 (love)' in the Korean title, and to translate it as "our" love story.
By refusing an exaggerated representation of the queer community, Our Love Story focuses on what causes a love-and-hate relation between two characters. I tried to persuade audiences to understand actual conflicts that lesbians encounter in South Korea in the latter half of the film. Because of this, some say this love story would not be the same if the lesbian couple were to be replaced by heterosexual figures; it can be also said that the film is too flat to impress audiences. However, I chose this form of expression in order to help the viewers understand little-seen realities in lesbian love stories.
FLMTQ: Could you reflect on the any social or cultural oppression that lesbians face in South Korea today?
HL: The most significant contributing factor in making lesbians invisible has to do with a sociopolitical environment that reproduces homophobic stances in South Korea. During the presidential election of 2017, many campaigns not only refused to legalize homosexual marriage, but moreover refused to punish discrimination against same-sex relationships. Furthermore, a candidate of the Republican party went so far to suggest that they would inflict severe punishment against those accused of homosexuality.
In regards to Our Love Story, one lesbian wrote me letter, explaining that she has not yet come out of the closet. Furthermore, she would not speak what comes into her mind after watching this film. That is to say, she has repressed the fact that she watched the film. I look forward to building a new society where a person such as this will be able to say what she desires to anyone.
FLMTQ: Most unresolved conflicts in Our Love Story— such as Ji-soo trying to fulfill her father's expectations by going out with a male figure, or the emotional clash between Yoon-ju and her homophobic roommate— exist outside the cocoon of their relationship, when the two characters are forced to confront the outside world. In other words, the characters encounter conflict when wandering from a place to a place and/or from a person to a person while they are moving in/out in particular. What motivated you to make this distinction between public and private lives?
HL: Regarding the use of living and working places in Our Love Story, the contradiction between people occupying their own places and people wandering around random places relates to the characters like Ji-soo's father or Yoon-ju's professor and homophobic roommate. More specifically, the older, conservative generation is allowed to build a private room. On the other hand, Ji-soo, Yoon-ju, or Young-ho temporarily stay at sites in rags. This contrast functions not only as a realistic depiction of young Koreans, but also as a reflection on the LGBT community in South Korea, which is predicated on a wish for them to become invisible.
Beyond the notion of lesbian love story, it also seems proper to define Our Love Story as a road movie of Yoon-ju searching for her own place. With the exception of the moment of continuing her relationship with Ji-soo, Yoon-ju is just sharing a living place with her roommate and a work place with her cohorts. In addition, she has to share food with Ji-soo's father in his house. She is not able to create her own place until the homophobic roommate rains a repulsive sentiment on her homosexuality. Ironically, Ji-soo adopts an ambiguous attitude towards the outside world. In spite of dignity as a lesbian within her room, she is just absorbed in the power of her father when she came back into her father's house. It probably means that the discourse of sexual identity is highly affected by others.
At the end of Our Love Story, the fact that Yoon-ju builds up a private place for herself that resembles Ji-soo's former room emphasizes the fact that she may encounter other sociopolitical barriers against homosexuals in South Korea. Despite such a pessimistic view, I believe that Yoon-ju is able to provide a room for herself makes her stronger than before.
For this reason, I believe Our Love Story posits a happy ending in the form of Yoon-ju's internal development of herself.
FLMTQ: Lastly, are you working on any new projects? If so, can you tell us a bit about them?
HL: Well, I never expected Our Love Story to be watched so widely. Because of that, it feels that I am weighed down with worries about future projects.
Nevertheless, it will probably be another love story of a female character derived from Yoon-joo in Our Love Story. I am not sure whether she is involved in a lesbian relationship or not. In comparison with my debut feature, I want to explore a love story with stronger emotions.
Lastly, I am really honored to present Our Love Story to Filmatique’s audiences. I look forward to showing my work on this platform again in the near future. Thanks a lot.
*Interview conducted by Haneul Lee