Oh, the excitement of the FedEx envelope arriving from L.A. Publicist Jack Song asked me to review “No Regret,” a Korean film with an upcoming U.S. theatrical run. It’s being billed as a gay Romeo and Juliet, in light of its melodramatic romance and class-differences theme. According to the press kit, “No Regret” was such a passion project that cast and crew worked for next to nothing and contributed their personal cash toward production expenses. Released in South Korea in November 2006, the buzz around this film has been building steadily.
Writer-Director Leesong Hee-il starts with a classic element—the orphan—who is especially alienated in Korea’s family-centric society. Sumin, at eighteen, says goodbye to the state home, looking to make his way in Seoul. Between a factory job and night school, he takes a limo-driving gig, where Jaemin, a wealthy male customer, makes a pass at him. Sumin rejects the overture, exhibiting the attraction/revulsion common to men who struggle with homosexual identity. The paths of Sumin and Jaemin intersect again at the factory, where Jaemin uses his status to save Sumin’s job, and at an illegal gay host bar. Sumin does not know how to give or receive love, and Jaemin struggles with society’s expectations of him. The two hurt each other and themselves as they fall in and out of a relationship.
Leesong has really pulled off something special—a film that gets better as it progresses. The action moves a little slow at the outset, but as the plot unfolds, the director weaves in moments of incredible symbolism and emotional candor. The ending is really a gem.
Portrayals of sexual encounters, from the rent boys dancing with johns to the romantic climaxes, are realistic enough to make the film gritty, but avoid crossing the line into “just for shock” territory. You get the sense that Leesong carefully considered the sensibilities of Korean culture as he orchestrated them.
According to “No Regret”’s press kit, the film “will go down in history as the first true gay film in Korean cinema,” a country “with little understanding of, or tolerance for, homosexuality.” With “No Regret,” Leesong provided a fascinating window into Korean gay life. But just as Asian-American filmmakers strive to tell deeply human stories that transcend race, Leesong has told a deeply human story that transcends sexual orientation. The loss, desire, and conflict of “No Regret” could stir any one of us.
“No Regret” plays in select U.S. cities, including New York, Portland, and several California locations, starting July 25. For more information:
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