Lost to Shame (2017) – Review

Beneath the Make Up

Korean transgender movie Dark LifeLost to Shame – 분장

Directed by: Nam Yeon-woo (남연우)

Starring: Nam Yeon-woo (남연우), Ahn Sung-min 안성민,  Hong Jeong-ho (홍정호), Han Myung-soo (한명수), Kim Jung-young (김정영)

The Film: Song-jun (Nam Yeon-woo) is an aspiring actor who has been down on his luck for the better part of several years. One day, he decides to audition for the lead role in a popular stage play called ‘Dark Life’, that tells the tragic story of a transgender woman named Judy. Being a relatively unknown actor, Song-jun knows the odds of him landing the part must be nearly a thousand to one. But with the help of his brother Song-hyuk (Ahn Sung-min), a skilled dancer and choreographer, Song-jun nails his audition and gets the part.

Being sympathetic to the rights and respect the transgender community struggle for, Song-jun takes an open yet serious approach to learning how best to play his new role and is able to locate and befriend a transgender woman named Ina (Hong Jeong-ho) after seeing her on a TV documentary about the difficulties faced by members of the trans community in Korea. Ina introduces Song-jun to a small community of friends and like minded individuals who meet regularly to support each other and share stories about various life issues in a safe environment. Song-jun finds the perspective he was looking for and brings exceptional realism to the role of Judy, and ‘Dark Life’ opens with rave reviews.

The role of Judy not only brings success to Song-jun, but it is a small triumph for the LGBT community as well for it sheds light on an issue typically avoided by the mainstream and allows people to get a better picture of the human struggle underneath all the superficial taboos of the subject. Just as things begin to look up for Song-jun though, his world is cast into darkness and confusion by a certain revelation.

The Korean title of Lost to Shame is “분장”, which is the action word for “to put on make up” for something like a play. “Make up” is a perfect title for this multi-layered film about acting. The first level being that the characters in the film are theater and film actors who are professional pretenders in essence, and have both a work identity in the character they are playing and their real identity that they take home with them at the end of the day. But what happens when an actor gets completely lost in their role? Is it possible to leave one’s true identity and beliefs lost or buried deep within?

The film suggests that this might be the case for all of us, as our day to day selves also have layers of make up that conceal our blemished beliefs and value systems we deem either consciously or unconsciously not suitable for public display. This “act” that everyday people put on to get through life and make sense of their role in the world can be frightening if forced to come face to face with, which is exactly what happens to the film’s character Song-jun. His dark confrontation with his long held beliefs about LGBT issues are a reflection of the times we live in, and that sometimes our hearts move faster than our minds do when it comes to making progress on social issues in an increasingly complex world.

Although not at all surreal, the way the film’s lead character evolves over the course of the film with repeated appearances of several scenes from the ongoing run of the stage play is done in a similar way as Birdman (2014) and Black Swan (2010) did. Showing the character’s subtle changes through each rendition of the scene like this might be played out (excuse the pun), but its effectiveness as a character study is undeniable. The pacing is spot on and engaging throughout with several surprises in store along the way.

Lost to Shame has a very strong script that manages to come across as both smart and relevant. The dialogue is natural sounding in a way that is not very common with indie features whose writer, director, and lead actor are all the same person. Nam Yeon-woo’s strengths are visible and seem equally strong on all fronts, making this one of the best and broadest performances of the year. To be able to pull this off means that without a doubt that Nam is the real deal and a true arrival of a new talent in Korean cinema.



One Comment

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  • Hojeong
    5 October 2017 at 3:15 pm - Reply

    I could think about this movie deeply with your review 🙂

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