Ellie Park, Photography Editor

A Korean man sits on his bed, his mother beside him, as they roll up their rainbow-striped socks up to their knees in preparation for Pride Toronto, one of the largest and most visible pride celebrations in the world. As these two walk down the busy streets, this scene represents a rare moment of familial support for one’s queerness, especially within Korean society.

This supportive relationship between a Korean parent and their queer, transgender child is at the heart of the 2021 documentary “Coming to You.” The film follows the story of veteran fire officer Nabi and her trans daughter, Hankyeol, as well as Vivian and her gay son, Yejoon, as they learn how to be better parents and advocates for their adult children in a heavily stigmatized Korean society. With an invitation from professor Kyunghee Eo, an assistant professor of East Asian Languages and Literature, Yale welcomed the documentary’s director Byun Gyuri and documentary filmmaker Kim Il Ran for a screening and Q&A event on Monday, April 11. 

“Family-centric, Confucian values are somewhat problematic and should be criticized,” said Byun. “But I think it’s important to find ways to create healthy, positive relationships within families because there are many queer people in Korea who yearn for it. To be honest, I think the parents of queer people don’t have the means, vocabulary, or the infrastructure to actually learn. So what are some things that we need in order to create these loving relationships? I think this movie is a start in exploring that question.” 

Byun and Kim are members of PINKS, a collective Kim co-founded in 2005 which includes documentary filmmaker activists who create queer, feminist narratives. The idea for this proposal first came to Byun when she encountered the organization, “Parents, Families, and Allies of LGBTAIQ+ People in Korea,” or PFLAG, during her archival work for PINKS. 

As Byun sat in on a meeting and watched parents speaking about their “experiences in front of the camera,” she said she realized that the process of coming out is an emotional journey for parents as well. These parents, she said she realized, learn to grapple with their new identity of being a parent of an LGBTQ+ adult child. 

“It was meaningful because the parents weren’t simply taking part in this activism out of parental obligation, but under this newly-coalesced identity of being a parent of a queer, trans child,” said Byun. “For me, and PINKS, the parent’s process of learning and embracing this new identity was an important journey to capture.” 

For PINKS and its members, to be a filmmaker is to be an activist. As their camera records the violation of rights and violence towards gender and sexual minorities, the documentary-making process itself is a form of activism and solidarity, said Kim.

Located in South Korea, PINKS’ work is heavily informed by its local sociopolitical context. Feminism and LGBTQ+ remain largely stigmatized and polarizing issues in South Korean society. This reality makes receiving funding and other monetary support a challenge for the collective, Kim and Byun said. 

According to Kim and Byun, PINKS receives funding from two outlets. The first source of funding comes from film festivals, where a council of judges evaluates pitches and awards grants to specific projects. PINKS also has a group of close to 500 private sponsors/beneficiaries, who provide monthly donations to the organization.  

While these methods of funding have sustained numerous projects, an issue arises for large-scale projects — for instance, Kim’s current work, “Edhi and Alice.”

Unlike other commercial films, the filmmakers involved in PINKS projects usually do not seek funding from investors. The reason is twofold, says Kim and Byun. As PINKS is an activist collective of documentary filmmakers, they seek “independence from capital.” 

“Commercial films are oriented around profits, around margins,” said Kim. “The commercial and the popular are not the same. PINKS documentaries and films may be a part of the popular, but they’re not oriented around commerciality. It’s a form of political campaign, what we produce. It’s political, and it’s about introducing the perspectives of social minorities into the mainstream, which means that we aim to make popular, widely-watched films.” 

 “Coming to You” is currently streaming on Netflix Korea. The making visible of LGBTQ+ subjects is an essential part of activism, said Kim. She also pointed to the emerging mini-series adaptation of “Love in the Big City,” a queer Korean novel written by Park Sang Hyun. 

The second reason they tend not to seek funding from investors is far more complicated, according to Byun. To say that PINKS is intentionally distancing itself from commercial investment offers only half of the picture. 

In some ways, this separation from working with private investors is not a choice, but a point of reality. Korean investors are just not interested, said Byun. 

“Korean investors aren’t hugely interested in these independent documentaries,” she said. “That’s the truth. So it’s not necessarily true that we’re one-sidedly and entirely rejecting this capital. Rather, it’s more about how we can find an investor who can truly and wholly reflect our story, someone who can collectively bear the weight and tell the story. As of right now, however, the right investors are hard to find.” 

Film festivals provide funding and grants, and they don’t intervene with the project at all, whereas investors do, she said. According to Kim, film festivals prioritize the writers and directors of projects, while investors prioritize revenue. 

While both feminism and queerness in Korea remain heavily contentious points of debate, Kim said that it can be riskier for people to call themselves a feminist than to identify as queer. The administration of South Korea’s current president, Yoon Seok-Yeol, is removing “gender equality” from school textbooks and dismantling the gender equality ministry — the government’s own body for women’s empowerment. 

In a 2019 survey conducted by SisaIN, a local Korean news outlet, 60 percent of men in their twenties reported a moderate to extreme aversion to feminism.

Yet, there are critics of modern Korean women’s literature who argue that the current literary ecosystem largely lacks the “political substance” of women’s life experiences featured in the writings of ’80s Korean women writers. Instead, they argue, contemporary Korean women’s literature is overly focused on interiority, sensibility and the personal—historically “feminine” concepts. 

Byun and Kim beg to differ. According to Kim, what is deemed “political” or “radical” is entirely dependent on the context of time. Even declaring oneself to be a woman would have been a radical claim back then, she said. But what does it mean to call oneself a woman today, asks Kim. In contemporary times, speaking as a woman and claiming the positionality of “woman” is far more complicated, said Kim. 

Further, the interiority and sensibility of recent works by Korean women may reflect the modern needs of Korean women, said Byun. 

“While I don’t know too much, it seems that safety, a space where one can feel safe or a community in which one can exist safely, is an extremely important issue for women,” said Byun. “And there exists a context, a background that explains these 20, 30-year-old women’s desire for safety. Especially as I was entering college, there were incidents like the Gangnam Station murder. That shows how safety for Korean women and queer people are not to be taken for granted.” 

The Q&A event was moderated and translated by Jiwoong Choi GRD ’24, a current master’s student at the Council on East Asian Studies. Choi said that the movie’s title “Coming to You” adds new layers of meaning to “come out” of the closet, for both LGBTQ+ adults and their parents. 

He added that the journey for Korean parents to learn to understand and advocate for their queer and trans adult children parallels the ultimate goal of comparative studies. 

“Director Kim Il-ran’s closing remark on the Korean adaptations of English words— the transformation of ‘coming out’ from an action verb in English to an entity that is gifted in Korean English— was incredibly moving,” wrote Choi in an email to the News. “It also strikes me now as a microcosmic example of many of us in Korean studies, regional studies, comparative studies, and the like at an American institution should strive to accomplish: not just examine one object through the lens of another and vice versa, but to see what new beautiful meanings are made in the intermediate spaces between our homes.” 

“Coming to You” received an award at the 2021 DMZ International Documentary Film Festival.