KOREA: Fish Bones Review — Family Expectations and Individual Aspirations

“You can’t keep living for other people, you know. No one is going to win like that.”

Hana defies every norm: as a full-time student studying math, and the daughter of an immigrant, she is also a daughter caring for her ill mother, a part-time worker at her family’s Korean restaurant and an aspiring model, much to her mother’s chagrin. She’s also in love with another girl.

The movie “Fish Bones,” written, directed and shot by Joanne Mony Park, focuses on everyday interactions, conversations, and problems. What’s unique is the film’s lead character: a  closeted Korean American woman, Hana, played by Joony Kim, who struggles to pursue her dreams as she appeases her conservative mother’s (Borah Ahn) high expectations.

The film juxtaposes Hana’s story, with that of Nico, played by Kris Gris, a  Latina who is open about her sexuality. Nico has a successful career in the music industry, thanks in part to her parents’ support. Liberated and in touch with herself, Nico encourages Hana to follow her dreams despite her family’s objections–and yet, familial ties prove hard to sever.

This struggle is symbolic queer individuals within likewise conservative cultures, where high expectations and a collectivist mentality prevail—and where a greater emphasis is placed on family and community than individual aspirations. And so, her mother, played by Borah Ahn, a woman struck with bed-rest due to her failing health, unknowingly obstructs her daughter’s path to self-satisfaction when she says that Hana “ is going to make someone a very happy man–a Korean man. ” She unfailingly emphasizes the importance of her daughter marrying within her culture and according to heteronormative values.

This antagonism creates friction for Hana, who believes she must choose between her sick mother she must care for and her girlfriend. As she conveys to Nico, “I’m very sorry, Nico. I can’t do this anymore,” to which Nico says, “You can’t keep living for other people, you know. No one is going to win like that.”

“Fish Bones” is an important film. Here is the  story of a queer woman, an immigrant, a daughter, and a lover struggling to care for her ill mother and balance the expectations of her family to pursue a financially safe and successful career route in Mathematics and marry a Korean man, while secretly working on her dreams of modeling and living happily together with Nico, both of which have been deemed as hypersexualized and against their cultural values by her conservative mother. It is a film with which many can empathize for its telling of experience far too often felt but rarely displayed on the big screen.

Fish Bones screened at Outfest Fusion 2019, from March 2nd to March 5th. Outfest is the leading organization that promotes LGBTQ equality by creating, sharing and protecting LGBTQ stories on the screen. 

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