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Words Without Borders “stands as a monument to international collaboration and a shared belief in artistic possibility.” 
— 2018 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize Citation
from the March 2019 issue

The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta, Part II

In this second installment of Sang Young Park's novella, a failed filmmaker finds himself onstage with his archrival. Read the first installment here.
 

When we opened our eyes, we were lying in a single bed. Wangsha was the one to let go first and turn to me. This isn’t what I wanted. He seemed conflicted. Then, he spoke firmly.

I’m not that kind of person.

What kind of person is that?

The kind that does it with men.

He hadn’t wanted to do it. It had been a mistake.

Wangsha looked confused. He said he didn’t have anything against that sort of thing, but he was a very ordinary man and had a girlfriend before he was conscripted. He sounded like he was trying to convince himself. He wasn’t even paying attention to me. He said he needed to shower and left the container. I sat up in bed and looked down at the place we had just lain in together. I had the slightly bitter taste of Chanel perfume in my mouth.

Wangsha treated me no differently after that. He smiled at me, patted my head, and sometimes wrapped his arm around my shoulders. But if I reached for his hand first or came up close, he would always stiffen and back off. The sight of his rigid, rejecting back made me feel like he was bounding away from me. But I couldn’t stop my eyes from traveling to him. I began learning more about him as I stared. The shape of his left eye as he squinted in the sunlight, the curve of his tanned neck, the color of his veins when he rolled up his sleeves, the way his cheeks rounded when he smiled. I bet my feelings reached out for him through my expression, my attitude, from my entire body. Like a rice cooker giving off steam.

There were days when my emotions boiled over. The hardest thing was when there were just the two of us.

One night, we returned to the barracks and lay down in our respective beds. Wangsha went right to snoring like always. His perfume kept piercing my nose. I couldn’t sleep. I tossed my pillow this way and that, but it was useless. My heart pounded louder than Wangsha’s snoring. I got up. I tiptoed to Wangsha’s bed. I saw Wangsha’s face thanks to a tiny shaft of light that shone from the window. Wangsha slept with a slight frown. His body, curled against the covers, was as familiar as my own. I came up to him really close and paid attention to every detail of his face. A face I dared not stare at too much in the daylight. Thick eyelashes and a long nose, high cheekbones and small, slightly parted lips. I touched his lips with mine. My lips grew slightly warmer whenever he exhaled. I slipped my hand into his shorts. His genitals fit into the curve of my hand. My breath was getting rougher so I stopped breathing. His genitals grew harder and warmer in my hand. I couldn’t tell whose heartbeat it was at my fingertips. Wangsha’s snoring ceased. I took out my hand and stood up. Wangsha’s eyelids were trembling. I flung open the barracks door and ran outside.

I didn’t know where I was going, I just ran. I felt like every step pushed my feet deeper into the ground. A cloud of dust obscured my vision. But I kept running. I had to run somewhere. Beyond Zaytun. Beyond Iraq. Somewhere far enough where I didn’t have to look upon him anymore. I wanted to run out of myself, out of my own thoughts of him. But I couldn’t. My legs gave way and I fell to the ground. I lay in the sand for a long time. Tears flowed down my face. Tears of hate, shed for only me.

When I returned, Wangsha was the one who rolled up my trousers and cleaned up my bleeding knees. It was hard to watch him kneeling in front of me, disinfecting my wounds. It would’ve been easier if he’d pretended to see nothing. And why the fuck was he being so nice? Didn’t he know what I just did to him? After he applied the band-aids, he sprayed my ankles with relief spray. Now my body and his hands smelled of the same medicinal scent. That was probably the only time in our lives that our bodies smelled the same.

***

When I woke up from dozing, the movie was making a break for the end. I sat up and started listening to the exaggerated enunciation of the actors.

Do you think it’s really too late when you think it’s too late, Yunhee?

The realization is always too late. That’s just the way it is.

The man left the room. The woman, alone, opened the window to the attic. Through the opening of the window, the sun slowly began to rise.

The credits went up, the lights went on, and I noticed I’d drooled a bit on the chest of Wangsha’s muscle shirt. Wangsha pulled down his shirt, as it had ridden up quite a bit, and wiped away at the drool with a wet-nap. I said I was sorry and pretended to throw myself at his feet in repentance. In any case, I was in trouble. I hadn’t watched the movie, so I didn’t have anything to ask at the Q&A. Desperate, I asked Wangsha about the plot and his impressions of the film. Wangsha gazed at the screen with moist eyes as he spoke.

It’s the epic story of a woman who realizes her true love is not to be.

It made me want to punch him in the face. What the hell was I going to say about a movie that looked like it was designed to lull its audience to sleep? Posterity would’ve been fine if the film had been locked away in an archive forever. Mija gestured to me to come on down. A few audience members squealed as Daniel Oh took the stage. Mija gave me two sheets of questions: clichéd, superficial questions, obviously written by her. Mostly about the social media darling Daniel Oh rather than the movie. I’d basically been hired to kiss his ass. Too late to back out of it now. I took the microphone, put on my perky-dude-from-sales smile, and bounded up the stage. We stood side by side as the audience stared at us. I spoke first.

Please welcome Daniel Oh, director-turned-social media star!

Loud applause. Oh bowed low and sat down, crossing his legs and gently gripping his microphone, looking leisurely and professional, and like an asshole. I also sat up as straight as I could and moved away from him as much as possible so my head didn’t look so goddamn big by comparison. I started mechanically reading off the questions on the sheets.

You said in a previous interview that this was your favorite movie. Why is that?

Maybe it’s the caution with which it handles human emotion, how it dares not speak its name and yet tries to look as closely as possible? I’m moved by the sheer effort that went into all of its tiny, seemingly insignificant details. I think that such details ensure there’s no convergence into a single interpretation, giving the characters a rich life and texture. I’m on the side of doing the same thing myself.

But isn’t that the exact opposite of what you do . . .

I thought I’d said it under my breath, but it had come out louder than I thought. Part of the audience laughed. Director Oh spoke, in a somewhat befuddled voice.

Really? I thought I was doing something similar in my work.

Aren’t your latest works a bit on-the-nose? A bit, well, easy. Uh, no offense, I mean, you’ve got to lose a bit of character when you’re focusing on the narrative. Your movies are so quick and fun. That’s why I thought so.

I was actually using the words he had said to me six years ago. Oh replied, I guess another person might see it like that, and smiled like he was a good sport. But there was something off about that smile. I continued reading him the meaningless questions on the sheets, and Oh replied with his characteristic condescending voice. The audience looked like they were getting bored of him, given that he wasn’t as interesting as his social media posts. I bit down, trying not to yawn. Mija had changed since she’d been in school. I wondered whether it was because she’d been in a corporate setting for such a long time that all her questions were so basic and dull. There was one last question.

What do art and the creative act mean to you?

Oh seemed to ponder this for a moment before replying in that fake-sincere manner of his.

Masturbation.

Typical bullshit disguised as cutting insight. A few audience members coughed out surprised bursts of laughter. Oh seemed to enjoy the reaction while transparently covering up his pleasure. He spoke, in an overdramatic manner.

Certain masturbatory emissions are worthy of documentation.

He went on about the similarities between masturbation and creativity, and what exactly constituted a masturbatory emission worthy of documentation. There was nothing special about his perspective, which boiled down to his saying, if he took a dump and called it art, it was art. The relationship between art and humanity, the communication between experience and artworks . . . The longer he droned on, the more people started getting up to leave. Despite his rambling finally coming to an end, there was still twenty minutes left for the Q&A. I had to make shit up now. I pretended to look down at my notes and secretly Googled Oh’s name.

Oh’s latest film was Salvation, a film that opened two years ago. I remembered downloading it as soon as it opened in theaters. It was your usual Korean melodrama with a sprinkling of gratuitous pedophilia on top. The film appropriated the pain of social minorities by objectifying them, and I felt the same discomfort as when I saw his supposed queer film six years ago. I scrolled through the filmography and came upon news results saying he had been appointed to sit on the ethics and human rights committee of a progressive political party. In recognition of his warm gaze upon the plight of the needy or somesuch. Uh, sure. The most recent articles had nothing to do with filmmaking and everything to do with P, that idol-group boy he was supposedly seeing.

Oh was sitting there with a lordly expression. I slipped him a question about the rumors. The mention of P’s name brought short screams from the audience. Oh tried to deflect the question by giving us his thoughts on P’s group’s latest song. I knew better than anyone else that Oh was not gay, that he was just using these rumors with P for more clout on social media. That’s the kind of person he was. A heterosexual who used homosexuals for his own ends. Undaunted, I kept asking him questions like when did he first meet P, how often did they meet, what did they do when they met, and what kind of stuff did they talk about. The audience finally began to liven up. Oh was panicking. He tried to shut me down by saying his private life was his own business. His voice was firm but his eyes were trembling. Mija, who was sitting in the front row, looked more and more pissed. I wondered what question I could ask him next and noticed a book of his tweets sitting in front of me (it was a prize to be given away at the end of the Q&A). I handed it to him and asked him to read his favorite tweet.

They’re like my children, I couldn’t possibly choose between them.

Pick the masturbatory emission that you felt was most worthy of documentation.

I’m not a professional writer or actor. I’m not used to reading aloud.

He sure took his time finding the right tweet. Finally, he dramatically lowered his voice like some Shakespearean actor and started to read. Somewhat drama-school-ish for someone who just said he wasn’t used to reading aloud.

Certain inverted nipples drive me crazy . . .

My laughing into the microphone created a feedback noise. I switched it off and turned my head. Giggling like a boy going through puberty, when I was almost old enough to have a kid going through puberty. I tried to prevent my shoulders from shaking in laughter. I pressed down on my breath so hard I felt my blood pressure rise.

I couldn’t get off the stage for a long time after it was over. Oh’s fans who had stayed behind had massed onto the stage, looking for an autograph. As part of my ass-kissing job, I dutifully received Oh’s assorted gifts and bouquets and neatly added them to a stack before putting down a fresh sheet of paper in front of Oh for him to sign. The last woman on the line got Oh’s autograph on her copy of his book and, as if feeling sorry for me, got my autograph on a crumpled receipt. I bowed to her as she turned away. Thank you so much.

 

The afterparty was at a sashimi place nearby. We ordered soju along with our flounder and cuttlefish. I got drunk enough to loudly proclaim that certain cuttlefish were worthy enough to be documented. Oh was the only one who didn’t laugh. Instead, his face red, he asked me a question.

So what are you doing these days, Director Park? When I search your name, all I get is the fencing champion.

I’m writing about crazy people who drink a lot. Like us right now!

Oh poured himself a cup of water and sneered at me.

So how come I’ve never seen any new films of yours?

I’m writing a screenplay.

For six years?

I don’t want to rush into it and gain a reputation as a hack and a one-hit-wonder, like some people.

Mija, who sat next to me, refilled our shot glasses and gaily butted in.

My how our esteemed directors must’ve missed each other! Talking about ancient history and everything.

The skills of a solid six-year veteran in corporate. I didn’t say anything and downed my shot instead. Oh wasn’t one to lose so he downed his own shot.

Director Park, you haven’t changed at all. Especially that rebarbativeness that comes out when you drink.

But you’ve changed a lot, Director Oh. Like your name. (Also, your wrinkles, and your hair is falling out.)

Everyone changes. Oh yes.

Had he been a village elder in a past life? His delivery of the obvious in that fake wise voice was the same as ever. I could feel my face heating up. I poured Oh another shot, with all the hate in my heart. The rage I felt six years ago was clawing its way to the surface.

***

We were at the afterparty for the First Diversity Film Festival. Drinks at some meat grilling place in Hwacheon, Gangwon Province. It didn’t take too long for diversity to break down there.

Mija and I were supposed to jump on a train to Seoul as soon as the closing ceremony was finished. But then Mija’s acquaintance Q told us there was going to be a little afterparty near the movie theater and we might as well get some free drinks before we leave. Since we’d never had free drinks before in our lives, it didn’t take much for us to go along with the plan.

The place was huge, and the smoke ventilation wasn’t working well. In the haze sat Oh, me, Mija, an old critic named Kim who was one of the judges, another judge, R, and the program director, Q. They all seemed to know each other except for Mija and me. We sat like still-life fruit and quietly filled the others’ glasses, or accepted it when someone filled ours. Critic Kim’s face was red with drink as he tried to console me.

Don’t feel too bad, Director Park. You’ve basically won second place. If this were Cannes, it would be the Silver Bear!

Yes, sir. (Um, you mean the Berlin Film Festival.) Thank you.

Q agreed, speaking in an obsequious tone. Mr. Kim is right. We’re just so hard up in the art film world, otherwise we would’ve given Director Park a prize, too. I cried when I watched your movie!

Director R placed a hand on Oh’s shoulder. But Director Oh definitely deserved an award. What a masterpiece he bestowed on us.

Piece of shit, more like. Oh’s prizewinning movie was a disaster. Some innocent guy runs into a gay man and they have sex like dogs. He feels unsure about his sexuality and feels affection for the gay guy but (of course) ends up being used. The guy, having failed at love, sells himself at host bars. He fucks a series of anonymous men before being randomly gang-raped by a bunch of heterosexuals and kills himself. How moving. Watching the movie made me 100% sure that Oh was straight. Straight directors are all about the exaggerated nailing of the ass and slobbering ridiculous kisses when it comes to depicting gay sex. Oh’s movie fits the bill. I mean, the characters even cried after having gay sex. Why the fuck would two guys who love screwing guys cry after screwing a guy? Not only was I sure Oh was straight, I doubted he knew anything about straight sex, either. His movie was seriously objectifying, its tropes more fit for an 80s artifact than recent work. Critic Kim said the film beautifully showed a relationship between two people of the same gender and brought up homosexuality to the level of universal love. They all talked about ordinary people and what was universal like they knew exactly who these people were and what exactly was so universal. I had no idea what was so special about gay love, and I was actually gay. Jesus, straight people ruin everything.

I’m not saying your movie was bad, Director Park. It’s just that, I don’t know. The gay parts weren’t realistic.

Huh? What do you mean? (On my part, I’d basically filmed a video diary of my life.)

Think about it. The characters are too happy. They have no depth.

No depth?

Yes. The characters claim they’re gay, but they have no deep well of the soul. That makes no sense.

What in the actual fuck are you talking about?

I don’t know about people your age, Director Park. But people my age have a hard time accepting gay people who accept their sexuality. Isn’t that a bit naïve of you? Why would a socially isolated group use such language?

Q, who had been sitting silent, interjected in a polite tone.

I agree. I had the same point. And all the people in your movie seemed like they were crazy with sex. Like, oversexed, you know?

But when we watch movies about straight people having affairs, we don’t accuse straight people of being oversexed, right?

Critic Kim intervened.

Look, Director Park. Don’t take this personally. The thing is, your film doesn’t have that special point. That . . . thing that makes queer movies queer. You don’t quite have the right idea about gays, you know what I mean? Their love story is just like straight people’s! Your film is all about young people going out and drinking and dancing and having sex.

What the fuck was up with this point shit? Were we playing tennis, or something? What did they want from me? I pressed down on my anger as much as I could before replying.

Good. I wanted to make a film that was more or less about young people drinking and having sex.

But if that’s so, why make it a queer film? Because queer films are trendy?

I didn’t make a queer film. I made a love story.

Look at this kid. Should I call him modest or bold? He’s using the gays like some commodity. Hey, all you’re trying to be is some cheap version of Hong Sangsu.

So according to his logic, queers needed some kind of point to be in a film, something acceptable to his idea of ordinary people. And any character that just drinks and fucks is a rip-off of Hong Sangsu. Me? Hong Sangsu? Name one Hong Sangsu movie that doesn’t feature a single female character. If I were cutting limbs off in my movie he’d call me Kim Kiduk, if I were murdering some character in a room with pretty wallpaper he’d call me Park Chanwook. They were never going to take a single step out of the small world they knew so well. They knew nothing about queers. How could they? To them, queers were just a bunch of people who did sad and weird sex. They couldn’t imagine ordinary, cheerful queers, and if they had met one they’d think they were made-up. They never thought of queers as ordinary people. I could almost feel the veins popping in my eyeballs. I downed shot after shot. Mija gripped my arm, tightly. She was telling me to quit it. I remembered how my nickname in film school was Trigger. Because a flick of a finger would set me off. I downed the last of the soju and began to shout.

So if anyone drinks or fights in any movie ever, that’s a rip-off of Hong Sangsu?

Hey, calm down. You know Hong Sangsu already said all there is to say about drinking and fighting and having affairs. Are you saying your films are better?

Oh butted in.

Look here, Director Park. Critic Kim is saying your movies are too simple and easy. OK?

What did you just say? Are you saying my films were easy to make?

I don’t know about that but come on, they’re shallow. You don’t even know how weird it is that gay characters would be so upbeat, so casual about their problems. Are you sure you thought the issue through when you planned it?

And do you know anything about gays yourself, Director Oh? Have you ever even seen a gay person?

Of course I have. I worked at a gay bar to prepare for this movie. I did my research. And that’s what made me realize how empty and futile their lives were. They drink every day, they do drugs and have sex with anonymous men. If you knew what their lives were like, you wouldn’t have made such a shallow film where all they do is joke around and laugh.

Please shut the fuck up.

What the fuck did you just say?

Shut. The. Fuck. Up.

You little bastard!

I don’t remember who it was that flipped the table. The restaurant erupted into chaos, and Oh and I had grabbed each other by the lapels before being kicked out. Critic Kim, film festival judge, vowed that I would never be able to eat lunch in Chungmuro again.

As Mija dragged me out of there, I shouted again and again that I would never lose, that I would prove myself through my work, that my name would shine so bright those bastards would never utter it lightly. I proclaimed this again and again.

It didn’t take long for the vow to become meaningless. Critic Kim didn’t need to lift a finger; I fell apart on my own. Since that night, I couldn’t finish a single script, queer or whatever, and soon it was hard to tell if I’d ever had anything to do with films at all. Maybe I was always ready to sabotage myself. And all my dreams, my hopes, my determination, all that it had been drinking from was a single well of baseless confidence.

And now my life is like I’d picked the worst of everything for myself. My creativity was depleted before it started, I barely made minimum wage, and I was a thirty-something going around illegal downloading sites, searching for “desiring sleeping muscle boy.”
 

© Sang Young Park. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Anton Hur. All rights reserved.

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