Among other things (such as being one of the best rom-coms of the 2000s), I love Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s Needing You for introducing me to actress Sammi Cheng. She is a near-ideal rom-com actress, and I’m pleased to find out that she’s in a lot of other Johnnie To films. Lately, I’ve been feeling renewed energy to continue working my way through his filmography (he has 54 director credits on IMDb, and I’ve only seen 13 of them so far), particularly his work outside the action/thriller genre, so I’ll definitely be running into more of her soon. You may not be able to notice it in these screencaps, but she has the slightest hint of freckles around her nose, a wonderful, distinctive feature that makes her all the more unique.
One thing I noticed, though, from watching Needing You is the similarity between the way it portrays gender roles and the way they are portrayed in K-dramas. I’ve only seen two K-dramas so far—“Personal Taste” and “Coffee Prince”—but both have one thing in common regarding gender roles: the male is put-together, relatively calm and stable, and not at all needy, while the female is messy, goofy, and in desperate need of giving some shape to her life. Now, you could easily see this in a very “un-feminist” light, but it never seems to play out that way, contrary to expectations.
For one, the female character usually gets to have the most fun. She can play around and goof off, whereas the male character usually has a much more rigid set of rules governing his behavior. If these works of fiction might seem to be portraying women as somehow “inferior” (on one level at least), I can also say that, speaking as a male viewer, I find them sort of liberating: she is able to make mistakes and fail (often repeatedly), whereas the man in all three cases is someone who is always highly aware of what is expected of him (and thus less capable of deviating from expectations). This is especially true of the K-drama “Personal Taste,” where Lee Min-ho plays a guy who treats professional success as virtually a life or death matter. The female star of this K-drama is Gae-in, a Liz Lemon-like woman played by Son Ye-jin.
And if we look at the way these narratives resolve themselves, as opposed to the ways they are set up, it’s quite clear that the person who really needs to change in each case is the man. If social conventions dictate that we see him as more put-together initially, the melodramatic conventions of the rom-com or K-drama take over and undermine this. In the end, it’s the female character who is most accepted, her flaws embraced as just part of what makes her who she is, and the male character who is required to transform himself, even rejecting the ideals placed upon him by society (at the end of Needing You, for instance, Andy Lau’s character is prepared to quit his job and, in one richly symbolic scene, throws a bunch of paperwork out the door, pushing his work life out along with it, so he can express his feelings to Sammi Cheng’s character, a coworker).
Now, this idea of societal pressure is obviously a thematic element given considerable emphasis in Asian cinema/television. It’s unmistakable how many Asian melodramas (including most of the K-dramas I’ve seen, glimpsed, or heard of) layer a romantic plot on top of a storyline involving the characters’ professional lives. And really, there’s something even rebellious about the way these female characters are portrayed. For every representation of a character that might be considered negative from one perspective (e.g. the way Gae-in from “Personal Taste” is portrayed as a messy slob and underachiever), we can look at the very same representation from another perspective and see it more positively (i.e. Gae-in’s more relaxed attitude towards work, her acceptance of her own imperfections, is preferable to the obsessively workaholic attitude of Lee Min-ho’s character, whose striving for perfection is matched by Lee Min-ho’s own appearance, in which every strand of hair and every item of clothing is perfectly in place). The male character might be said to act as a sort of stable pivot point, around which the female character wildly enacts her own neuroses and internal tensions. It’s a kind of exorcism, for the benefit of feminine subjectivity, and in return, the female’s chaotic disarray provides an ideal image of everything the male fears (but needs), fueling his leap from ordered, but ultimately dull, stability into a life that is more complete, not to mention more enjoyable and fulfilling.