South-Korea is known for K-pop, K-Dramas, Kimbap, Kimchi and just how grueling their entertainment industry is. Celebrities and pop-idols are usually under very strict contracts, some that go as far as explicitly forbidding them from being in a relationship. Coming out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community is considered close to career suicide.
So the rare few who have dared to be open about their sexuality in the conservative nation are nothing short of trailblazers. Like singer Holland, who not only came out as gay, but has not shied away from being open about it in his music videos either.
“No One Else Wanted To Be Openly Gay. So I Stood Up.”Korean singer Holland
In a 2002 interview to Vogue, the singer whose real name is Go Tae-seob, talked about how he had absolutely no role-models to look up to in the Korean entertainment industry. At a time when he was struggling with his sexuality, all he needed was somebody to look up. So he ended up turning to western icons.
Academicians who’ve studied the Korean society refer to the years between 1945-1997 as the “Invisible Age” for LGBT representation in mainstream media. One can just surmise from the name that queer themes were given close to no spotlight.
And some of the popular movies that did include LGBTQ+ representation were depressingly tragic. Take the case of the very popular period film “A Frozen Flower” that came out in 2008. It’s lavishly shot, with beautiful traditional music, and a talented cast to boot. The story is about a King who falls in love with a male soldier and is unable to have a child with his queen. Let’s just say, things end very badly. One of the earlier Korean films to have gay protagonists is the 1999 horror flick ‘Memento Mori’ – it’s about a lesbian couple who are bullied due to their sexual orientation and no prizes for guessing that things don’t work out for the girls.
So while alternate sexuality did start to find some space in scripts, most of them were all about tragedy, death, remorse and loneliness. Things only started to get slightly better in the late 2000s, with films like “No Regret” (2006), “Antique” (2008), Two Weddings And A Funeral (2012). ‘Two Weddings And A Funeral’ is quite a fun comedy about a lesbian and a gay man entering into a sham marriage to placate their families, how their partners deal with this new situation of ‘fooling the family” forms the rest of the story.
Enter 2020 and Korean creatives seem to be finally getting a little bolder and brighter about LGBTQ+ representation in their dramas. It could be that they are trying to catch up with all the attention the “BL” (short for Boys Love) genre is garnering in other Asian countries like Thailand, Taiwan & Philippines and they do not want to lose out on the boom.
First came “Where Your Eyes Linger”, a mini gay series directed by Hwang Da Seul which was released in the last week of May in 2020, just in time for the Pride Month. It had a very good-looking lead couple, one of whom was a K-pop trainee. A few months later, another mini-gay series called Mr Heart came out, a very breezy story about two athletes falling in love, directed by Park Sun Jae. Both these directors went on to make another different gay series each in 2021.
But the most ground-breaking Korean drama came in the form of the 2021 mini-series “Nobleman Ryu’s Wedding”, a historical drama about two Joseon era noblemen falling in love. And it had a happy ending. In the series review, I remember mentioning how a fan had hilariously commented “never thought I would live long enough to see Korea make a historical drama about two men in love”.
All this LGBTQ representation slowly but steadily creeping into the Korean mainstream only promises that members of the community can finally look up to role-models in their own country, even if fictional. And hope for more acceptance from their peers.
A Korean media company even released a cute gay short film on 1st June 2021, calling it a gift for its viewers for “Pride Month”. The winds are changing.