Exhib tries to challenge adult film ban

Duke Cinema ventures into distributing restricted pix

SEOUL — For the past several years, South Korea has maintained a legal stalemate that has effectively prevented sexually explicit or highly violent pics from reaching local theaters.

First, the Korea Media Rating Board would give the offending title a “restricted” rating. Then, by law, it could only be screened at specially licensed “restricted” theaters.

The only problem was, there were no such theaters in the entire country. Strict regulations made them commercially unviable, and none came into existence.

All that could change, however, thanks to the appearance of Duke Cinema, a company that has ventured into distributing restricted films and organizing a chain of restricted theaters.

Duke Cinema reached a deal with 16 theaters to apply for restricted status. Two of them, both located in the city of Daegu, began operation on May 14, unspooling “Romance” by Catherine Breillat as the opening title. The others are expected to follow suit.

While the appearance of South Korea’s first restricted theaters is being welcomed as a resolution of the legal masquerade regarding adult pics, the obstacles to releasing a steady flow of product seem insurmountable, as restricted theaters face numerous regulations that hinder commercial viability:

n They are not permitted to screen regular films.

n They cannot place advertising visible outside the building.

n They cannot be located within 200 meters of schools or residential areas.

n Restricted films cannot be released on video. The list goes on.

Adding to their troubles, restricted theaters also face serious challenges in securing adult pics to fill their schedules. The Korea Media Rating Board is empowered to rule that an offending title is unsuitable for import altogether, in which case it is effectively banned without ever advancing to the rating stage.

The board has already exercised that power in dooming another Breillat film, “Anatomy of Hell,” “Tokyo Decadence” and “Caligula.”

Nor are restricted theaters exempt from a quota requiring theaters to devote 40% of screen time to local pics. Homegrown sex and violence fare will have to be produced to comply with the quota. Because restricted films cannot be released on video, the small local erotic video industry cannot help.

Ironically, freedom of expression may ironically deteriorate with the appearance of restricted theaters. The Korea Media Rating Board may feel emboldened to more liberally hand out the restricted rating, pushing even slightly objectionable content out of regular theaters.

For now, the local film industry is taking a wait-and-see attitude on Duke Cinema’s experiment. Many of the theaters that applied for restricted status were already suffering from poor business, suggesting that if the venture flops in the short term, they may not stick with it.

Then South Korea will likely return to the status quo, a twilight zone of adult pics, where they are allowed in theory, but not in reality.