LONDON KOREAN FILM FESTIVAL ’22: Documentary About LGBTQ+ Rights In Korea, ‘Coming To You’, Comes off As Uneven

Coming to You is not an LGBTQ+ documentary. I mean, it is, but not really. It’s actually a film about motherhood. Director Byun Gyu-ri follows the mothers of two young LGBTQ+ people over the course of several years, charting their evolving relationship with their children. The film came about through Byun’s work with a Korean chapter of PFLAG, an international organization that supports parents of LGBTQ+ people. When it comes to documenting life for LGBTQ+ people in South Korea, the film is barebones, instead proving far more effective as a film about personal growth and parent-child relationships.

By splitting her film into alternating narratives about two different families, Byun’s film comes off as a little uneven. While Vivian and her gay son Yejoon are both affable, the sections that follow Nabi and her ace genderqueer son Hankyeol are far more penetrating. Part of this has to do with Nabi’s idiosyncrasies. A feisty woman in her fifties who’s also a veteran firefighter (badass), Nabi is the kind of character documentary filmmakers dream of working with. Nabi’s bewilderment as she grapples with the nomenclature to describe Hankyeol’s identity brings to mind Éva, the mother in the Hungarian trans documentary The Colors of Tobi.

One of the potential problems with documentaries about LGBTQ+ youth is that the ignorance of parents can, intentionally or not, be given unwarranted credence. This is mitigated by Byun’s decision to film the mothers over an extended period of time, from 2016 to 2021, enabling a fuller portrayal of the mothers’ growing appreciation for Yejoon and Hankyeol, as well as their increasing awareness of the challenges facing LGBTQ+ people in South Korea. Both Vivian and Nabi describe feeling confused when their children came out, but throughout the film, they are framed as the staunchest of allies whose commitments grow even deeper with experience.

Byun is able to touch upon intriguing intricacies of LGBTQ+ life for Koreans. At the beginning of the film, Yejoon is studying in Toronto. The footage shot here draws attention to a more open acceptance of queer lives. There’s a sequence in which a joyous Vivian takes part in a local Pride parade when she comes to visit. However, Yejoon still feels out of place and eventually moves back to South Korea, where he quickly finds a boyfriend. 

While Coming to You is mostly upbeat, bitter realities are confronted, mostly in Nabi and Hankyeol’s sections. Many trans people here in the UK today will recognize Hankyeol’s rage-inducing struggle to get his gender legally recognized. At the time of filming, Hankyeol needed parental consent in order to do this. This familiar and pointlessly paternalistic requirement throws up difficulties since neither Nabi nor the adult Hankyeol are on speaking terms with his father. The film informs us that they had to submit a ludicrous number of documents,18 in total and that even though a change in the law in 2019 no longer requires parental consent, some courts still enforce it out of the calcified convention. Byun departs from a usually unfussy style in the film to something more dramatic by playing a recording of the first judge rejecting the submission over footage of an angry Hankyeol smoking a cigarette.

Yet it’s through the simple power of a close-up that Coming to You delivers its most powerful moment. Nabi worries about the cumulative effect of a hostile environment for queer and trans people. This is preceded by scenes depicting homophobic protests and transphobic media coverage in South Korea. An unusually quiet Nabi talks about how she read about assisted suicide facilities and how she’d want to be with Hankyeol if he ever decided to die: “in your last moment, I want to be with you.” It’s an utterly bleak moment that gives voice to a parent’s greatest fear for their trans child, yet at the same time, it’s also the most powerful expression of love.

These are fleeting glimpses into the reality of LGBTQ+ lives in South Korea, and ultimately those lives are filtered through Vivian and Nabi’s perspectives. Given that the film touches on discrimination and legal inequalities, the film would have better served an LGBTQ+ audience by centring the people who are directly affected by those forces. Towards the end of the film, Vivian speaks critically about a rigid hierarchy between parents and children in Korean culture, urging a greater parity between the two. While certainly not a bad film, Coming to You could have been stronger by giving more space to Hankyeol and Yejoon’s voices alongside their mothers.

Coming to You played at the London Korean Film Festival on November 9th

by Cathy Brennan

Cathy Brennan (she/her) is a film critic and an editor at Cinema Year Zero.

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