No Regret (Huhwihaji anha)

2008-07-25 (Limited release)

It is a vicious circle. We hide ourselves because of prejudice and discrimination and therefore people do not see us. They do not see us, so they can’t understand us.

— “Kim,” “Communities Divided on Sexual Politics,” 31 October 2007

No Regret (Huhwihaji anha) opens on an idyllic scene. A young man swims in turquoise water, his nude body moving easily and observed from above, perfectly serene and utterly visible. Emerging from the river, Sumin (Lee Young-hoon) and his partner, dressed only in their white briefs, smile and touch one another comfortably. The sun shines through pale green leaves, the day is perfect.

And then it ends. When he turns 18, Sumin must leave the country orphanage where he’s lived all his life, his eyes red as he turns from the gate and heads to Seoul. Here in the big city he finds a job at a factory, attends art classes and works as a driver by night, imagining that, even as he’s becoming invisible, lost in crowds of workers and students, all determined to not make waves. It’s not long before Sumin learns a common and cruel effect of being so unseen, when he’s fired from his factory, one of 20 “non-regulars” unprotected by a union. When his job is miraculously saved by a “management suit” (and another man is fired instead), Sumin is horrified to learn that this pretty young man is one of his driving clients, Jaemin (Lee Han). Wealthy son of the factory owner, Jaemin also has a serious crush on Sumin, after observing him from the back seat for just a few minutes earlier that week. Then and now again at the factory, Sumin refuses to accept favors from Jaemin, fearing someone might think he’s gay. He slams into Jaemin’s office, rejects his help, and throws his uniform — the very sign of his droneness — in the face of his wannabe benefactor.

Sumin’s worries about visibility are only exacerbated when he takes a job at a “host bar” called X Large. Here he and other pretty boys strip and sing karaoke for men with money; soon he’s sleeping with them as well. This despite and because of the fact that during his “job interview,” Madame (Seung-kil Jeong) says, “I don’t hire faggots, our customers don’t like faggots either. I’m a faggot myself and I despise ambiguity.” Right. Always filmed in blueish half-light, the club is all about ambiguities and secrets, where straight men sleep with rent-boys, knowing their identities outside will remain intact. Sumin’s introduction to the sex work is rendered in a long panning shot, crossing over rooms and nights, a series of dissolving vignettes (dancing, masturbating, giving and taking blow jobs). At the end of this series of images, Sumin appears on a bed, his expression shifting, briefly pained, then remote.

Framed repeatedly in narrow doorways and from across shadowy rooms, Sumin immerses himself in the “life,” competing with coworkers, complaining about customers, and earning enough money to afford fine clothes, a rooftop apartment (for a great view during contemplative moments), and a fluffy lapdog. When a friend deplores the new job, Sumin claims it’s only a means to an end. “I’ll get filthy rich and go to college,” he says, “Just give me time, I need to do this for a while. Just for a while.” His profile looming in the dim light of a nighttime café, Sumin sounds like he’s convincing himself that this sex (or the self-image that might come with it) is just a job.

But you know better. If a coworker keeps his eye on the car he means to buy for his girlfriend (new cars serving as particularly visible emblems of success throughout the film), Sumin struggles with internal tensions, knowing he’s gay but also knowing no one else can know it. A melodrama in the grandest, most Sirkian tradition, No Regret grants Sumin repeated opportunities to perform his tensions, most involving Jaemin. The rich kid, well on his way to be married according to his overbearing mother’s wishes, has fallen desperately in love with Sumin, the object he cannot possibly have.

When he’s not making anguished faces during discussions of invitations and dinnerware with his fiancée, Jaemin is popping up at the X Large, asking after Sumin (“What a freak,” Sumin’s coworker snipes while the film shows a surrealish flashback in which a pajamaed Jaemin makes his way through the club’s backrooms, “Pretty boy must think he’s some kind of detective”). One such visit inspires Sumin to drama worthy of Dorothy McGuire, as he flies down a dark hallway, the camera close on his subtly contorted face. Madame flies after him, exclaiming, “Have you gone mad? Are you trying to ruin my business?!”

Madame’s barely contained hysteria underlines the film’s focus on the complex, typically repressed intersections of sex and commerce. While Jaemin’s upcoming marriage represents one of these intersections (as does his utterly submissive behavior before his imperious mother), his declarations of love and angst provide fleeting moments of release: “I’ve been in pain ever since I met you,” he tells Sumin as each does his best to look away from the other, their hands touching below the frame. Deeming such language “so corny,” Sumin demands more from his lover: “You’re rich and well educated,” he declares, “Can’t you find something brilliant to say?” It’s as if he’s the ideal audience for this insightful soap opera, critiquing and acting out at the same time.

Directed by the openly gay Leesong Hee-il, No Regret marks a series of firsts, all swirling around the concept of visibility. Its gorgeous hi-def digital visuals further accentuate this layering of sentimentality and self-awareness. Sumin ponders his situation while walking neon-illuminated streets, or literally carries an injured Jaemin on his back, down a long, empty sidewalk. Such beautiful images, spaces defined by light and shadow, reflect their emotional struggles, the sheer effort it takes to make their desire visible.

Even when the lovers share a brief respite in bright sunshine, riding far from the city to spend a day at the beach, the compositions are spectacular. Even as they smile, hold hands, or exchange passionate whispers, their romance remains at risk of exposure (a risk that explodes into frankly melodramatic violence by film’s end). No Regret makes vibrantly visible such risk, as well as the social mechanisms that determine it.

RATING 7 / 10