18th September 2012
REC: Directed by So Joon-moon. Starring Song Sam-dong <as Song Yeong-joon> and Jo Hye-hoon <as Seo Joon-seok>. Released November 24, 2011. Running Time: 66 minutes.
Two men spend the night in a motel with the intention to film themselves having sex. They are not doing this in order to make a cheap porn film. Instead they are celebrating their fifth anniversary as a couple and they want something personal to commemorate it with. Yeong-joon is the older of the two, now thirty years old, and he is much more excited about making this movie than the younger Joon-seok, but even the latter begins to enjoy himself as he relaxes more and realizes their movie will not wind up on the internet. The two discuss themselves, their hopes and dreams, their fears about their relationship and interact with each other in many cases as if the camera is not there. However, in more candid moments, we can see glimpses of sadness in one or the other’s eyes and it becomes obvious to the viewer that there is something unspoken happening beneath the surface that the two particiapants sense as well.
The above description is really all there is to REC. The movie has just two actors and the set for 99 percent of the film consists of the confines of the hotel room. However, by different positioning of the camera, the scenes never feel cramped or dull. Most of the film is supposed to seem as if one or another of the actors is doing the shooting, which makes perfect sense in context as opposed to people running for their lives while shooting footage a la Cloverfield. The few times that the camera is not being utilized by one of actors, but by the cinematographer, the film becomes black and white. This only happens near the end when one of the characters removes the disc from the camera and we are forced to see things from the perspective of an outsider instead of through the eyes of the participants.
The underlying cause of the sadness that becomes evident during the movie? That should be obvious from re-reading the first paragraph where I state one of the characters is 30. That can only mean one thing. If he isn’t already married, he will be soon. If he is the eldest son in his family, then remaining single is not a viable option. He would receive pressure from his family to marry .. and to a certain degree, from society as well. Having an unmarried daughter is an embarrassment. Having an unmarried son is a disgrace. It is the son who is responsible for carrying the family name down to the next generation. It is the eldest son and his family who will take over the duties and traditions of ceremonies honoring deceased ancestors, cleaning off the family tombs and maintaining the family lineage.
This movie reminded me of a friend I had. I will simply call him K. As a student, K confided in me that he was gay. It is easier to confide in me as I am a foreigner and, as such, I am assumed to be more open-minded. It may also have to do with the fact that I was in my mid-thirties at the time and was (am) unmarried. What he wanted was advice and just someone he could talk to without hiding who he was. I knew he had a lover, but I was never introduced to him. He also had a girlfriend whom he met at church and whom everyone involved expected he would married. After graduating and passing the tests necessary to become a policeman, he got a job. His parents ordered him to marry before starting his new work. About one week before the wedding, he came to see me and spoke about his families. His English was week, but from the phrases he used, I knew he had practiced and checked vocabulary before meeting me. Once we were alone, the first words out of his mouth were, “I loath my wife.” I was a little taken aback and thought I might have misheard ‘loath’ and ‘love’ but he continued that he hated touching her and sharing a bed. I asked him if he couldn’t call off the wedding to which he replied sadly, “No. I must get married. I have no option.” I have often thought about him over the years, worried about him, but that was the last time I saw K. He never contacted me again after that.
K’s situation is what we are watching in REC. One of the characters in the movies states how all gay relationships in Korea are doomed from the start because of the requirement that they must marry. He goes on to state that because of that, one year in a gay relationship has to count as ten years. It is the only way to create the illusion of a lifetime of happiness.
It is true that the situation of gays and lesbians has improved in the last few decades. When I first came to Korea in 1995, it was a common practice for listeners to put their fingers in their mouths and simulate gagging whenever someone mentioned the word ‘gay’ ..or at that time ‘homo’ (a term I thankfully no longer hear). There was another story I heard from a student at the time about her younger brother. ‘J’ told me that when her brother was in high school, he was caught in a compromising position with another male student. His family sent him to a doctor who in turn institutionalized the young man in a mental hospital where he received some sort of therapy. The result was that whenever a man went to reach for him such as to shake hands, he would cringe and scream.
We are a long way from those days, but LGBT individuals in Korea still face an uphill battle to be recognized as equals in Korea. Movies play a part in helping to mainstream differences and work towards acceptance and/or tolerance. However, because of its rating due to incidental frontal male nudity and the frankness in the discussion of same sex relations, REC can only have a very limited audience. It is a shame, because the story being told is both beautiful and heartbreaking–one character secretly expressing his true love and gratitude while the other secretly knowing that what they have is over.