Sanitized for your protectionThe Korean film “Too Young to Die” (Jugeodo Jo-a), a love story about a couple in their 70s, was shown at the Cannes International Film Festival. But it almost wasn’t shown in Korean theaters.
That’s because every movie commercially screened here must first make it past the Korea Media Rating Board, a government body dating back to the ’60s, whose mission includes protecting Korea from films that “corrupt public morals” or “confuse social order.” And apparently, the board thought the sight of elderly people making love would do one or the other.
Cho Young-gak, an independent film critic who served on the board’s film rating subcommittee when it screened “Too Young to Die,” recalls his fellow committee members being offended by a scene involving oral sex. “Our society is already obscene enough,” he recalls one saying. “No more such stuff should be allowed.” Another dismissed the film as “this oral sex movie.”
The board didn’t ban “Too Young to Die,” which, in addition to being shown at Cannes, won awards at the Vancouver and Pusan international film festivals. It doesn’t have the power to do that. This is, after all, the 21st century.
What the board does is assign ratings to films according to “age-appropriateness.” If it brands a film “restricted,” it can only be legally shown in theaters that specialize in adults-only films.
The problem is, there are no such theaters in Korea.
Mr. Cho, the film critic, who had only been on the board for a few months, resigned after its members gave “Too Young to Die” a “restricted” rating. (The film was eventually screened here, after the filmmakers agreed to darken some scenes to make them less explicit.) Several other board members followed him. He went on to start the Forum to Reform the Media Rating Board.
“What the board is doing at the moment is another type of censorship,” Mr. Cho says now. “The only difference is that it’s just more cleverly done. Without using scissors, they’ve made all those idiotic as well as complicated systems.”
The board’s head, Kim Soo-yong, sees it differently.
“The board does not do anything like censoring,” he said. “All we do is just rate cultural productions according to proper age groups. I sometimes think that we’re being too nice.”
Although not everyone would agree with Mr. Kim’s assertion, few would dispute that the board is far less restrictive than it once was.
Established in 1966 as the Korea Art and Culture Ethics Board, it became the Korea Performance Ethics Board in 1976, the Korea Performing Art Promotion Commission in 1997 and the Korea Media Rating Board in 1999. Its purpose is set out in Article 5 of the Sound Records, Video Products and Game Products Act, which has been amended a number of times over the years.
Currently, the board has 15 members, who are recommended by the National Academy of Arts and then commissioned by the president. Five members must be women, and five must be under 40. There are eight subcommittees, whose 58 members currently consist of film industry people, civil activists, journalists, parents and teenagers.
It’s not just films that the board oversees, but video and online games, live concerts and movie trailers. In 2003, the board went through 21,604 such cultural products, watching for red flags in three areas:
“Elements that run counter to the democratic order of the Constitution or damage the authority of the state.
“Excessive descriptions of violence or obscenity that could corrupt public morals or confuse social order.
“Elements that could do harm to national interests by defaming the cultural identity of the Korean people or damaging international diplomatic relations.”
For films, video games and online games, the board imposes one of five age-based ratings ― “general,” 12+, 15+, 18+ and “restricted.” For a music CDs or performance, it simply decides whether it will be available to children and teenagers or not. Last year, for instance, the board allowed U.S. rock musician Marilyn Manson to perform in Seoul, but barred anyone under 18 from attending.
Decisions on individual “cultural products” are made by each subcommittee. When film companies object to the decision of the subcommittee, they can appeal to the main board.
Mr. Kim, the current head of the board, has himself been a film director since the 1950s, and remembers the censorship of the old days, when the government could simply edit films as it liked.
“Not a word of abusive language was allowed, and description of North Korea was strictly controlled,” he said. “In a war movie, one single bullet of the South Korean army must shoot down 20 commies. If not, the scene was cut out without mercy.”
Times have changed, as demonstrated by the Korean War box office hit “Taegukgi,” in which the lead actor, Jang Dong-gun, plays a North Korean officer. “The board no longer has the right to cut the film, and even if it had, I don’t have the slightest intention of cutting it for political reasons,” Mr. Kim said.
Last year, the board initially gave a “restricted” rating to Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” starring Uma Thurman as an assassin. The film’s distributor, Taewon Entertainment, resubmitted it with 13 seconds of its 111-minute running time excised; the board approved the trimmed version, and “Kill Bill” was shown in Korean theaters, with no one under 18 allowed in.
“If the board had not stopped such a ruthless and bloodcurdling film, more films of the kind would swarm over the local movie scene,” Kim Soo-yong explains. “We could not let that happen.”
But while the 13 trimmed seconds ― involving decapitation ― were removed, other violent scenes, including severed limbs by the dozen, fountains of blood and a lingering closeup of a woman with the top of her skull sliced off and her brain exposed, were allowed to remain.
Mr. Cho, the film critic and former board member, is critical of the fact that foreign films have a double hurdle to cross before they make it to Korean screens. Every foreign film must first be recommended by an “import recommendation” subcommittee before it goes to the film rating subcommittee.
“Tokyo Decadence,” the 1992 film by the Japanese director and novelist Ryu Murakami, recently came up against this obstacle. After Korea’s ban on many Japanese cultural products was eased in January, the film was submitted to the recommendation subcommittee, only to be denied.
“This denial is as though the committee considered the film something like pornography, which was hard to understand,” said Kim Sang-a, the Korean distributor of the film.
The distributors appealed, and the main ratings board itself reviewed “Tokyo Decadance.” The board was evenly divided; Mr. Kim broke the tie by approving the movie.
“The film did not look too great,” he said, “but I thought, if the film opened in Japan, why not Korea?”
“Tokyo Decadence” now awaits the next step, which is the assignment of an age-appropriate rating by the rating subcommittee.
Mr. Cho sees this “recommendation” requirement for foreign films as insane. “It’s another type of censorship, which is even worse than scissoring,” he said. “This is nothing more than a blockade policy.” He adds that the board charges a fee of 70,000 won ($60) per 10 minutes to foreign films, and only 5,000 won per 10 minutes for domestic ones.
Says Mr. Kim, “The recommendation system is still direly needed. That is the only way to stop foreign films that are anti-state, corrupt public morals or damage diplomatic relations.”
A development is brewing, however, that could change the system dramatically. UNI Korea, a major distributor, is collaborating with cinemas across Korea to establish a network of theaters to show “restricted” films commercially for the first time.
“These are not ‘adult cinemas,’” UNI Korea representative Min Hyun-shik stresses. “Our name will be put on theaters across the country showing films from us. Visitors will know by that sign that they are not in some dingy adult cinema.”
Korea does indeed have its own version of the pornographic movie house; usually located in dicey neighborhoods, they show “erotic videos” that feature partial nudity. The rating board applies different standards to these, because they’re on video. UNI says its network will show serious films that the board deems too explicit for general release.
One reason that theaters haven’t existed to show these films before now is the legal restrictions on building them. For instance, they are required to be shown in self-contained buildings ― not simply on one screen in a multiplex.
And getting a return on such an investment has seemed unlikely, because advertising “restricted” films is illegal.
UNI is getting around this by partnering with already-existing single-screen theaters, a segment of the business that’s in dire need of new ideas. (“Most non-multiplex theaters in Korea are now basically on the verge of shutting down due to financial losses,” says Kim Hyung-seok, a film writer for Screen, a local monthly.)
As of last month, about 20 of the theaters had been granted permits to show “restricted” films; they’ll open around April, according to UNI Korea. The first film scheduled is “Caligula,” a 1979 movie about the insane Roman emperor ― controversial and sexually explicit for its era, but rather tame by current U.S. standards ― starring Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren.
“Audiences are already sick of the same films playing in multiplex theaters,” says Lee Mong-seok, a manager of Magic Cinema in central Seoul, one of the theaters partnering with UNI Korea.
“It will be a way of marketing that distinguishes us from films at mainstream theaters,” Mr. Lee said. “For serious, adult moviegoers, this will be a whole new kind of cultural exposure.”
If theaters like these survive, it would seem to suggest that movies like “Too Young to Die” will finally get a distribution channel without having to make cuts to accomodate the rating board.
But some critics are less optimistic. They point out that foreign films ― which UNI says will make up 70 percent of what it screens ― will still have to jump the extra barrier of the rating board’s “recommendation” process.
It’s unclear whether enough foreign films of this kind will be allowed into Korea to support such specialized theaters. Park Hye-su, a representative of the board’s film rating subcommittee, said the committee will continue to “stick to principles” in judging foreign films it screens, but wouldn’t comment on whether the standards for such films might be loosened in the future if demand for them exists.
“The major problem is whether the distributor will be able to provide us new films we can rotate in every two weeks,” said Mr. Min of Magic Cinema. “Longer than two weeks, we probably won’t be able to sustain it. It’s something the company promised when they first suggested the idea. But in the worst case, if that equation gets broken, we would consider switching back to regular theaters.”
Film critic Kim Si-mu says both the industry and the ratings board are unprepared for the existence of “restricted” theaters. He fears that they will simply make it all the easier for the board to keep films from being seen by general audiences.
“The board will be quick to make that call once the ‘restricted’ cinema is set up,” he said. “That is the trap, which wouldn’t be fair for the filmmakers who shot their films for general audiences.”
by Chun Su-jin, Park Soo-mee
More in Features
[Shifting the Paradigm] With one epidemic under control, another is threatening Korean society
Kakao TV launches this month, takes on Netflix
[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes
Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers
When it comes to sex ed, this Danish author says just talk about it