Few Korean films were as groundbreaking as No Regret last year. A bold statement, true, but this debut by filmmaker Leesong Hee-il dares to break one of the most sacred taboos in Korean society, homosexuality, with a story as fierce and unapologetic as it is honest and moving. Though arguably hits such as The King and the Clown helped to pave the way for portrayals of homosexuality in Korean cinema, those films portrayed gays as equivalent to women, and they also took place in the past. But No Regret is unflinching in showing how gays live in Korea today, and its resulting box office gross – it was the biggest independent hit of 2006 – surprised everyone. Costing just US $100,000 to make, but still looking utterly professional, the film is inspiring new and up-and-coming Korean filmmakers to take more risks in subject matters.
Politics aside, No Regret at its heart is a tragic romance between two people from vastly different social strata. Inspired by the Korean “hostess movies” of the 70s, whereby young and innocent women would be lured to the bright lights of Seoul only to end up as prostitutes, this film takes that classic plot background and gives it a modern twist, similar to what Todd Haynes did with Douglas Sirk in Far From Heaven. Granted, No Regret does not have the painterly flourish of Haynes’ film, but it manages to evoke the social melodrama of the best of Fassbinder’s by tackling sensitive social issues.
The plot revolves around Sumin, an orphan who comes to Seoul to study art design. While supporting himself by working a factory job by day and driving cars for the rich by night, he comes to the attention of Jaemin, a young man from a rich but conservative background. When Sumin learns that he is spared from a layoff at the factory by Jaemin, whose family owns the business,he volunteers to quit himself rather than be seen as favoured by the boss’s son. Now unable to support himself, he soon finds himself working as a prostitute in a gay bar. Jaemin, however, is determined to find Sumin once more and win his heart. He ultimately succeeds, but the lovers’ bliss is short-lived when Jaemin’s family starts to intervene. The film is then propelled toward a powerful and unexpected climax that will shock some, but also surprise and touch others.
Powerfully acted, especially by newcomer Lee Young-hoon as Sumin, and remarkably scripted, No Regret has gone on to win many awards and participated in festivals such as Berlin, Pusan, Hong Kong, and a host of others. “Affecting and emotional … has great dramatic pacing, strong low-budget visuals and a last-act twist that makes for a riveting final lap,” says Screendaily, while Variety recommended it as a “maturely written drama … marbled with both touching and funny moments.” But no matter the acclaim or the reviews, the truth is that the film makes you want to believe that these two people can one day live together without fear of persecution.
– Raymond Phathanavirangoon