Ms. Representation: Another way of seeing
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author talks about the Korean drama Suspicious Partner streaming on Netflix
Our commercial cinema, both regional and national, has been receiving flak for a while now from feminists, and anyone with a sense of social responsibility, for the way interactions between men and women are portrayed. Particularly the normalising of stalking, and the throwing up of hands and shrugging of shoulders by filmmakers who say, ‘Well, this is what happens in real life. There is no other way to show the beginning of a romance’. Apart from calling their bluff on this and pointing out their utter lack of creativity in coming up with interesting meet-cutes that are the bedrock of any good on-screen romance, I wondered what else I could do.
I looked around and found an answer in an interesting Korean drama that is streaming on Netflix. Suspicious Partner (2017) breaks many stereotypes, as K-dramas these days tend to. Over the past few years, I have seen a few shows that are in earnest subliminally trying to address the gender issue on screen. In Strong Girl Bong Soon, the superpower of being extraordinarily strong is passed on only to girls, which makes the lead character who initially wants only boys to wish for only girl children, so they can use the powers to protect the weak. She has twin girls by the end of the show. South Korea is among the very few nations in the world and the first Asian country to have successfully managed to reverse imbalanced sex ratios. On another show, On My Venus (2015), the leading lady, Kang Joo-eun, is battling body image issues, trying to lose weight while also learning to deal with her hypothyroidism. Things a lot of Indian women can relate to, but seldom find women on screen worry about.
In one of the episodes of Suspicious Partner, the male lead, Noh Ji-wook (Ji Chang-wook), who is a public prosecutor, delivers a powerful couple of lines on stalking while talking about his client, a woman who has been stalked by a man obsessively, claiming to love her. He says, “The defendant was psychologically traumatised due to the constant stalking… Physical harm isn’t the only type of abuse. Stalking itself means psychological and emotional stress and abuse.” The female lead of the show, Eun Bong-hee (Nam Ji-hyun), a lawyer who is representing the stalker, asks, “The plaintiff only observed the defendant from afar… Don’t you think it’s too much to condemn it as an assault?” He says, “Unwanted attention is also a form of abuse. When someone I don’t like observes and tails me from afar, the feelings of fright, anxiety, and unpleasantness can’t be understood by someone who hasn’t had the experience. Due to the stalking, the defendant was forced to move constantly, had to cut off ties with her acquaintances. She even had to give up her job which she loved the most…” By the end of this conversation, the heroine who’s taken to tailing the hero over the last couple of years, comes to the realisation that her following him could have an adverse effect on his psychological health and decides to stop doing it, even if she was only looking at him longingly from afar in this ‘one-sided love’. The two of them do get together eventually, but for the lead characters to have this exchange and for the stalker amidst them to come to this realisation was an important addition to the script. Suspicious Partner also bashes a few other traditional stereotypes: Bong-hee is a taekwondo teacher who rescues the hero during fights, and the hero sheds tears unabashedly through the series whenever something goes wrong.
This is not to say K-drama has all the answers. But as a traditional society that has embraced technology and development, and as one that has a lot in common with our own culture (I had earlier written about Tamil college girls and their new found love for K-dramas), K-drama’s treatment of men is an interesting example for our own filmmakers who say there’s no other way of talking about women, men and stalking.