“No Regret” invites comparisons with “Brokeback Mountain” but this Korean film scheduled for release in the U.S. on July 25th is by far the better film. It is a love story about two gay men from different class backgrounds fighting with each other and with social prejudices to make a life for each other.
While Ang Lee’s movie was generally hailed in the mainstream press for its sympathetic treatment of the two main characters, many gays probably concurred with Doug Ireland who wrote:
There are many reasons to dislike Brokeback Mountain — the complete lack of chemistry between the male leads, the painful, groan-inducing dialogue, the energyless pacing — but all of this seems nitpicky in comparison to an outdated, out-of-touch theme. Marketed as the first (although it isn’t, really) mainstream cross-over homosexual love story, it seems strange that liberal urbanites would open their arms to the story of two closeted dudes who can’t deal with their sexuality, are made miserable by the secret, and die unhappy and alone.
In contrast to the author of the short story upon which “Brokeback Mountain” is based as well as the movie’s director, writer-director Leesong Hee-il is gay. That means that he likely felt no obligation to satisfy audience expectations about the tragic fate supposedly awaiting gay men. He also obviously had a surer touch with his male characters’ physical interaction, even though the two lead actors were straight.
In a way, “No Regret” is an old-fashioned story of love conquering all including class differences. Sumin, an 18 year old who has just arrived from an orphanage in the countryside, takes a factory job. Jaemin, the factory owner’s gay son, conspires to meet Sumin by hiring him as a driver, a moonlighting job he has taken to make ends meet. When Jaemin then tries to lure Sumin into his apartment, Sumin turns his back on the handsome and wealthy young man and refuses to even give him his name. As an exploited factory worker, he feels resentment toward the boss and any of his kin.
A day or so later Sumin, who is a contingent worker without union protection, learns that he is about to be fired. But at the list minute, he discovers that another worker has been fired instead. A fellow factory-worker informs him that Jaemin has interceded on his behalf. Showing that he is not interested in the rich man’s paternalism, he strides into his office, takes off his production line smock and throws it in Jaemin’s face. Here, he says, you can wear it yourself–and then walks out of the factory.
With no skills and no job prospects, Sumin decides to take a job as a male prostitute in a gay bar called XLarge. For young people coming in from the countryside, the sex industry is one of few avenues to a well-paying job.
Eventually Jaemin discovers that Sumin is for sale and comes to the bar to pay for what he can’t get through normal means. Sumin is disgusted once again to learn that he is a commodity. Being purchased to perform labor on the assembly line or in bed is something this poor but self-respecting young gay man will not accept.
Jaemin will not take no for an answer and pursues Sumin relentlessly. Somehow he senses during their first love-for-sale transaction that there is some chemistry. Eventually Sumin learns that “a shy man”, as Jaemin describes himself, has fallen in love with a “poor man”.
Once Jaemin’s love is requited, the two appear to be destined for a long-term, stable homosexual relationship but soon runs headlong into his parent’s objections. They understand that their son is gay and always winked at his indiscretions, but in order to maintain class status, Jaemin is expected to marry a wealthy woman that they have picked out for him.
Made for $100,000, “No Regret” is evidence once again of Korean cinematic excellence. Over the past 10 years or so, some of the most memorable movies I have seen came out of Korea. This is obviously related to the emotional intensity, acerbic wit and psychological depth of the screenplays. Unlike Hollywood, where the art of screenwriting is almost as moribund as General Motors products, Korean and other “peripheral” countries lead the way.
The dialog of the two main characters and the supporting cast of male prostitutes who work side-by-side with Sumin at XLarge crackles with energy. Director Leesong Hee-il clearly identifies with society’s outcasts, whether they are breaking sexual taboos or are struggling to keep their head above water economically.
The press notes explain that “No Regret” has its roots in another genre:
Although its subject matter is certainly unconventional for a Korean film, the story is plotted in a style similar to what has become known as “hostess movies” – which deal with ambitious young women who come to the big city of Seoul, only to end up working as prostitutes. In “No Regret,” Sumin, an orphan with nothing to his name, comes to Seoul as full of hope as the heroines did in those movies from the ‘70s, but ends up earning his livelihood through prostitution. Jaemin, who comes from a conservative and wealthy background, is burdened with the responsibility of maintaining the honor of his family name. The movie unfolds as a melodrama in the vein of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, both of whom were masters of the form. Ultimately, “No Regret” is a classic romance interwoven with the realistic depiction of class conflict and contemporary Korean gay life.
While press notes tend to inflate the value of the product that they are packaged with, this comparison with Sirk and Fassbinder, two of the 20th century’s great directors, is right on the money.
“No Regret” opens on July 25th at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 – 8000 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood and at Cinema Village – 22 E. 12th St., New York. Later dates are at the Palm Desert in Los Angeles on August 1, Portland August 22 and San Francisco August 29. I give this film my highest recommendation. It is by far the best film I have seen in 2008.