- Nation, Subculture, and Queer Representation:The Film Male Kisaeng and the Politics of Gender and Sexuality in 1960s South Korea
A tall man with a muscular body loves knitting, needlework, and doing laundry. Inspiring the abhorrence of his company president due to his effeminacy, he is fired. Working in a kisaeng house in female masquerade to make ends meet, he eventually becomes its most popular entertainer. Still beset with guilt over his “immoral” lifestyle, he abandons his newfound profession to marry his girlfriend and begin a proper life as a cosmetics salesman.
This is the storyline of the comedy film Namja kisaeng (Male kisaeng). This film, part of a boom in the genre of comedy films in the late 1960s, relies on the audience’s immediate recognition of the kisaeng figure—a female entertainer in premodern Korea who served men—in 1969, just when the kisaeng was transforming into a hostess who worked in bars during the day and as a prostitute at night. Its director, Sim U-sôp, who directed over thirty films between 1968 and 1970, was particularly prolific in this genre.1 Many of his films went on to set box-office records, particularly Namja singmo (Male maid), which attracted over 120,000 people in its first two weeks of screening in Seoul and saved the famous but financially struggling Shin Film from bankruptcy.2 Despite these films’ technical flaws and stock plot elements (typically focusing on poor and [End Page 455] rural men and women who overcome the adversities of life to find love and a family), audiences loved them.
These comedy films often exposed audiences to queer motifs, such as cross-dressing and gender role reversal,3 and they displayed diverse sexual themes of male sexual impotence, sadomasochism, and homosexuality.4 This particular historical moment of South Korean popular culture during the regime of President Park Chung Hee (1963–79) was brimming with what Judith Butler has called “gender trouble.”5 Although the political and economic aspects of this regime, along with Park’s seemingly omnipotent rule and the counterinsurgent social and political movements against his economic policies, have been thoroughly investigated, we know far less about the social and cultural dynamics of this regime.6 In fact, it is only [End Page 456] recently that historians and other scholars have begun to pay attention not only to how the “technology of government” operated from the top down but also to how that technology permeated the capillaries of people’s everyday lives during this regime.7 Feminist scholarship has been particularly productive in this regard, employing the lens of gender to explore the ways in which public policies interacted with private life to consolidate the male-centered regime of Park’s militarized developmentalism. Park’s regime has been described as “developmental” in the sense that it set economic development as the most significant national agenda, implementing various economic, educational, and legal policies that were meant to expedite economic development. Feminist scholars have demonstrated that the normative structures supporting this regime were premised on family-oriented definitions of gender and sexual identities that constructed the male as the “pillar of industry” and the female as the “homemaker.”8
But the mode of feminist analysis that focuses on this separation of male and female roles has had the unintended side-effect of reinforcing the heteronormative gender binary, and it does not explore adequately the multiplicity of marginalized sexualities during the Park regime. Also, it contributes to a focus on the omnipotence of this regime and its system. These authors tend to concentrate on state-sponsored violence, such as the national promotion of prostitution near American military bases and sex tourism for Japanese visitors, without paying enough attention to the marginalized voices of the historical actors of those industries.9 In order to provide more balance to the history of gender and sexual norms during this era, this article explores how the ideological recuperation and cultural appropriation of diverse queer representations in the comedy films of the late 1960s provide evidence for the multiple “state effects” of this developmental regime and the degree to which it relied on assumptions [End Page 457] about...