half (2014, South Korea)
I’ve come to expect so much from South Korean movies that it comes as a bit of a shock when a lacklustre one comes around.
Maybe if the English subtitles in the version I watched had been less cryptic it would have appeared less disjointed. It’s the story of a transgender woman’s experience in prison, but it’s also a courtroom drama (of sorts) on the question of her guilt. It’s also about a lawyer who battles to juggle his ambition and his growing sense of his client’s plight, and of a mother struggling to come to terms with her child’s gender identity. It’s long, too long, and all those themes don’t quite gel. It’s a bit disappointing.
It’s 2014. Min-A (Ahn Yong Jun) is a young trans woman who is starting to blossom, working as a singer in a small ‘illegal’ trans bar, The Secret, in the Itaewon district of Seoul. Her colleagues, manager Big Sister Wang (Song Young Gyu), the brassy, pink-haired Pink (Mun Se Yun), the sweet, more petite Yu Ri (Jin Hye Kyoung), and the more detached Se Hee (Kim Hae Rim), provide the love and support that she gets nowhere else. Her dressmaker mother, Jung Hee Yeon (Kim Young Sun), for example, is so ashamed she won’t even open the door to her.
One evening Min-A comes across a thug beating up Yu Ri in an alley. Min-A tries to stop him, and her turns his attention to her and attacks her, before resuming his assault of Yu Ri. Min-A picks up a conveniently placed iron bar and whacks him on the head. It stops him assaulting Yu Ri, and indeed it stops him altogether. Min-A is arrested and charged with murder.
She is at first placed in a male prison, where she is naturally fearful for her safety; any absence of a nearby guard seems to lead inevitably to a gang rape attempt.
Meanwhile, her appointed lawyer, the ambitious-but-with-his-own-backstory Kim Ki Ju (Jung Yoo Suk), isn’t helping. He finds her situation a bit distasteful and just wants her to plead guilty and get it over with. Yu Ri’s evidence that she was being beaten and that Min-A was acting in her defence is – a little surprisingly – excluded on the grounds that she couldn’t have known that as she was unconscious at the time.
It transpires that the thug was Yu Ri’s former lover (to whom Yu Ri still remained hopeful of returning), but who had a new cisgender girlfriend whose disgust for such entanglements compelled him to prove his manly abhorrence for all that Yu Ri represented.
The prosecution latches upon this to suggest a motive: that Min-A, who is pre-operative, was really Yu Ri’s male lover who rivalrously killed the old boyfriend to have Yu Ri all to himself. You would think that Yu Ri might have been sufficiently conscious throughout her encounters with both alleged lovers to refute this, yet her testimony is not sought.
On the good news front, Min-A is transferred to Yong San, the women’s prison. But things don’t exactly improve; her female cellmates shun her and are fearful of a person with a penis being placed in their midst. She poses not the slightest threat to them, but can’t win.
The film lurches from one new horror to the next; rape, self-harm, ostracism, dirty prosecutorial tricks, her mother under attack from hostile neighbours, and more. Aloneness. And, depressingly, after she is found guilty, her hormone treatment is stopped, and her old body starts to reemerge.
The thing is, the film should work. Its writers understand the complicated issues surrounding trans women in jail – where to house them, how to keep them safe, the wariness of other women, the awkwardness of staff, and so on. There are layers of complexity to be piled on.
And this is a film that consciously takes a very different approach to the common depiction of the trans prisoner in prison movies. It is not a prison where there is a brash troupe of trans women, as in many (mainly American) films; Min-A is passive, submissive, and very much one-out. So meek is she that you sometimes wish she could muster up some of the strength and spirit that enabled her to wield that iron bar.
Ultimately, it is that passivity – intended, one suspects, to make her victimhood more poignant – that gets in the way of the viewer connecting with her in a less-detached way. And, unfortunately, we learn less about her struggle than we might. Which doesn’t mean that the film’s not sad, or tragic; just that it’s not as powerful as it might have been.
The overwhelming visual impact of the film is decidedly beige. And beige it is.
You can watch it on YouTube
Posted on October 16th, 2021 at 10:56 pm. Updated on October 16th, 2021 at 11:08 pm.