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[Herald interview] Documentary maker awaits the big ‘coming out’

Director Lee Hyuk-sang debuts Korea’s first gay documentary


Smart, eloquent and bubbly, director Lee Hyuk-sang loves being himself.

“My whole worldview changed as I found out about my sexual orientation,” said Lee, who is gay.

“I got to see so many things that I didn’t get to see before. And I am proud of it.”

Lee’s debut film, “Miracle on Jongno Street,” is the first-ever gay-themed documentary to be released in Korea.

And Lee is more than aware of what it means to go public with this movie, which will open in theaters in about two months.

“It will be my ‘coming out’ on a totally different scale,” Lee said. “I’m letting the whole world know that I am gay. It’s a social coming out. Of course there are ongoing concerns and worries. But, at the same time, it feels liberating. I feel like I am finally letting ‘it’ go.”

Even before its release, the movie has already been receiving positive reviews.

Last year, it won Mecenat Award for best documentary at Pusan International Film Festival, and was chosen as “the documentary film of the year 2010” by the Association of Korean Independent Film and Videos. The film was also screened at Seoul Independent Documentary Festival in March.

And its upcoming official release is creating more buzz as Korea’s Constitutional Court on Thursday upheld a military law banning homosexual behavior stirred up controversy.

Lee, who knew he was “different” ever since he was a child, found out about his sexual orientation as he was exposed to both academic and cultural resources on LGBT sexuality while attending university.
 
Documentary director Lee Hyuk-sang (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
Documentary director Lee Hyuk-sang (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

Having studied film theory in graduate school, he has been producing information videos for Pinks, an LGBT arts and culture organization, and Chingusai, a Korean gay men’s human rights group, for the last 10 years or so.

Jointly funded by the two organizations ― Pinks and Chingusai ― the upcoming film features Lee’s four gay friends whom he met while hanging out in Nakwon-dong, Jongno, the popular gay district in Seoul.

With the vibrant yet shabby Nakwon-dong streets as its background, the film displays some of the most colorful and moving characters you’d ever meet in your life: gay movie director Joon-moon, gay activist Byeong-gwan who also works for rights of low-wage laborers and migrant workers, chef Young-soo, a former country boy who first discovered and joined the gay community of Jongno in his mid-30s, and Yol, a corporate employee whose boyfriend is HIV-positive.

These characters are moving not because they are gay, but because they choose to be and accept who they are. They move forward in spite of fear. And we know it takes courage to be oneself, that it’s sometimes much easier to live a lie.

There is a rare human beauty throughout this film, when Yol uses all his holidays to participate in the HIV activism movement, when Young-soo makes food for those who avoid visiting their families in the community, and when all-smiley Byeong-gwan receives his fellow friends’ visit at a police station after being arrested for participating in a rally for labor rights.

Yet the film takes a sudden tragic turn when Young-soo, who’d never met a fellow gay man until his 30s, dies of meningitis.

In the movie, Young-soo is full of life before his sudden death, enjoying and appreciating every moment he spends with his gay friends. It is so poignantly obvious how much he wanted this kind of acceptance and community support, making it possible to imagine the loneliness he must have felt throughout his early life.

“When Young-soo died, his siblings told us not to die without telling our families about our sexual orientation,” Lee said “They lost him without understanding who their brother really was.”

And Lee said that’s where the importance of coming out lies. It’s directly related to how he wants to be remembered while he is alive and even after his death.

“We gays change our lives for who we love,” he said. “If I die without letting the world know that I am gay, some of the most crucial things that explain about myself and my life ― whom I loved and why ― would be forgotten. I don’t want these things to be as if they never existed.”

Lee said that while this movie encourages more LGBT individuals to come out, he respects those who choose not to reveal their sexual orientation.

“The message of this movie is ‘come out, be and like who you are, meet friends, and know you are not alone,’” he said. “But it is a tough choice to make with a lot of risks to take. I just want this movie to motivate them to at least consider the idea.”

Though he’s never been physically discriminated against because of his sexuality, Lee said discrimination can take many forms.

“The fact that I have concerns about my upcoming social coming-out is (the result of) discrimination,” Lee said.

Lee said he is concerned about possible homophobic attacks against LGBT people after the release of this film.

“Even before starting to work on this film, someone I knew had a man trying to pour acid on his face,” Lee said. “These things do happen and we are trying to be prepared.”

Lee does not want to hide his sexuality even at the very last event of his life.

“I’ve told my brother to set up a huge rainbow flag at my funeral,” Lee said. “And tell everyone that I was a happy gay man.”

By Claire Lee (clairelee@heraldcorp.com)
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