Coming Out (KIM Jee-woon: 2000)

At 45 minutes, Coming Out is longer than your average short film and clearly signals the aesthetic and visual vocabulary which will come to define Director Kim’s oeuvre. Hyun-yoo, an attractive young woman, tells her brother, Jae-min, and his girlfriend Ji-eun  that she has a secret that she wants to reveal, but will only do it through the mediation of the camera lens. The secret, that she is a vampire, is one that is initially met with disbelief, and she is forced to demonstrate her vampiric nature to Jae-min and Ji-eun, in order to get them to ‘accept’ her difference.

The title of the film makes it clear that the film is not really about vampirism at all (although that could be argued about all vampire texts) , but rather about ‘coming out’ in relation to sexuality. Indeed the figure of the vampire has been used for centuries to articulate desire outside of the heterosexual matrix. Arguably in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Count’s object of desire is not Mina but rather the rather feeble and feminine Jonathon. Mina is merely the object of exchange between men which effectively allows a disavowal of homosexuality and the implication that same-sex desire has a society built upon compulsory heterosexuality.

Theoretically vampiric desires are often interpreted as examples of pre-oedipal oral desires within a Freudian pop perspective, or perhaps more problematically as articulating the subject’s refusal to leave the imaginary and enter into the symbolic and all that entails (the Lacanian perspective). I say problematically because of the association of the imaginary with narcissism which seems to me to deny homosexual desire a symbolic identity (I am thinking here of Judith Butler’s discussion of unintelligibility) and such refusal thereby continues to prop up the patriarchal order. Theory aside, vampires penetrate rather than are penetrated, orally rather than genitally (a good old displacement), which allows the figuration of other desire in a metaphorical form, even though as often the case with female vampires, it merely provides a mise-en-scene of ‘aberrant’ sexuality for the desirous gaze of the male spectator.

Coming Out is aware of the history of the vampire, including the postmodern reinvention of the vampire as a figure no longer doomed to darkness, or threatened by the mere ‘empty’ presence of religious relics. Instead Kim Jee-woon’s vampire walks in daylight, eats solids rather than merely ingests liquids, and certainly does not sleep in a coffin at night. Indeed, the beginning of Coming Out with the brother reporting the tale of his sister’s revelation of her true identity to a reporter, is reminiscent of the opening to Interview with a Vampire (Neil Jordan).  At the same time, the fact that Hyun-yoo insists on revealing her identity to the camera means that Coming Out is also a meta-narrative on the very nature of cinema and its relation to reality. This is signalled within the reenactments of events that took have ‘past’ within the ‘present’ with the actors receiving an onscreen credit when they first appear on screen. In a postmodern celebrity obsessed society, ‘reality is television and television is more than reality’ (and yes, I love quoting from Videodrome [Cronenberg: 1983]). However Jae-min and Ji-eun don’t trust the image and insist that Hyun-yoo demonstrate her vampirism, because seeing is believing after all (a contradictory act which reinforces the primacy of the image as spectacle). Again, this is shown to us through a re-enactment, as with a comic touch Hyun-woo deflowers a young Korean schoolgirl in a ‘red’ phonebox, after which they share a cigarette. There is nothing subtle about Coming Out, but then it is not meant to be subtle, Director Kim is not asking the audience to interpret the image but rather to recognise the image for what it is. This is apparent when Ji-eun’s curiosity gets the better of her, and she desires to be bitten and experience the ecstasy that such an act promises. Hyun-yoo concedes to Ji-eun’s desire, and bites Ji-eun on the inner thigh, making the implicit sexual penetration of the vampiric act an explicit depiction of lesbian desire.

Even within the low-budget format of Coming Out, Director Kim’s sense of aesthetic beauty which finds its fulfilment in abject horror is apparent as demonstrated by the painterly canvas with its broad brush strokes of red splattered against a white background which constitutes the cinematic mise-en-scene. The fact that Hyun-yoo having ‘come out’ on camera, then flees to Europe and more specifically to England is a telling fact on the repression of sexual difference in South Korea at the time and indeed where sexual diversity is still not celebrated or fully accepted these days. Coming Out is an important film, both in terms of Kim Jee-woon’s development as a director but also in terms of LGBT cinema in South Korea.

It was a shame that I wasn’t aware of this short when writing about queer cinema in the forthcoming ‘Directory of World Cinema: South Korea’ (Intellect, September 2013), but it will certainly find its way into the next one. [Sorry about the plug folks]

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