Song-joon (played by Nam Yeon-woo) is a stage actor. Or at least, he wants to be a stage actor. The last time Song-joon was in a stage play was several years ago when he was still going to school. But with every reason to be pessimistic concerning future prospects, Song-joon is steadfast in his determination to score the lead role in Dark Life, a major play about a young man coming out as a transwoman.
The first half of "Lost to Shame" deals with Song-joon's preparations for the audition, and the results. The main establishing information we get about Song-joon is ambiguous. Observe how insincere his pleading to both the taxi driver and the transwoman comes off. It's hard to tell whether Song-joon is bad actor or just a genuinely awkward idiot. We do eventually get unabashed sincerity from Song-joon, though, as he becomes enmeshed in the transgender community and starts taking serious interpretive dance lessons from his younger brother Song-hyeok (played by Ahn Sung-min) in order to score the role.
But just when everything is going the best it possibly can, Song-joon accidentally runs across several traumatizing plot points at once, and from there his countenance turns sour. It's hard to tell whether the change in Song-joon's attitude is a matter of latent homophobia, or if he's just highly agitated about the fact that close friends and family members are keeping secrets from him. In all likelihood it's a combination of both.
This leads to the big critical irony of the flm's second half. While Song-joon has achieved success on the power of subtle dramatic expression, he is apparently incapable of just telling people what he feels directly. Song-joon keeps badgering friends and family members with obvious leading questions specifically designed to give them an excuse to tell him what he already knows, and they won't take the bait.
The ironic contradiction starts to drive Song-joon crazy. Having taken these slights as a personal insult, Song-joon starts to transform into the monstrous caricature that such socially conscious minded media as Dark Life is supposed to be cautioning against. The abstraction that is theatrical art divorces Song-joon from real world feelings- as it does his fellow thespians, who can tell that Song-joon is not right in the head lately, but choose to ignore warning signs because Song-joon's sense of personal angst empowers his ability to produce art.
Which is another great contradiction- performance as love of art versus performance as being driven by mundane purpose versus performance for the sake of winning hearts and minds. Song-hyeok may be a talented dancer, after all, but he's working himself to exhaustion in practice mainly to get an artistic exemption from military service. Which leads me to wonder if that's what's really behind Song-joon's breakdown. After all the work Song-joon went through to become a transgender icon, in the end it's the guilt, rather than the injustice, that informs Song-joon's performance. The greater societal implications of this are sad even beyond the fate of the characters "Lost to Shame" temporarily immortalizes.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Lost to Shame""
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