The modern South Korean film industry was born in the mid-’90s when the Busan festival helped push back the cloud of censorship that had prevailed for 10 years after the end of military rule.
Since then, Korean directors have reveled in their freedom to shock, tantalize and blindside their audiences — whether coming from Kim Ki-duk’s sado-masochistically bizarre “The Isle” and fairly explicit sex in Park Chul-soo’s “The Green Chair,” to hints of cannibalism in Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil,” or the unremitting but always stylish ultra-violence of Na Hong-jin’s “The Chaser” and “The Yellow Sea.” Choi Min-sik eating a live octopus in Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” is still a high point for some genre fans.
Yet there’s growing concern that censorship is on the increase since the arrival in February of President Park Geun-hye’s deeply conservative government.
Some see the Korea Media Ratings Board as having already become tougher. They cite the near-banning of Kim’s “Moebius” as an example. The director, whose stock-in-trade is provocation, only had the film cleared for commercial release after two appeals and the removal of two minutes of footage.
Yet, a single problem film does not necessarily mark a trend. “The new government is less than one year old. Most current films were greenlighted before that,” says “Late Autumn” producer Lee Joo-ick. “Maybe there will be more impact in the future. But we are not China.”
Others fear that the government will not need to act explicitly and that self-censorship will do much of its work.
Some suggest that politically themed contemporary films are not going to be greenlit and that criticism of the government is becoming harder. For this they look no further than “Project Cheonan Ship,” a documentary by Baek Seung-woo, which premiered in May’s Jeonju festival. It offers alternative explanations for the 2010 sinking of warship Cheonan, in which 46 sailors died and which the South Korean government says was caused by a North Korean torpedo.
Bereaved families attempted to bar the film with court injunctions, but “Cheonan” made it into limited release in September, only to have the Megabox theater chain remove the film after two days. The exhibitor cited warnings that its cinemas were going to be picketed by conservative groups. Skeptics say with the heads of many big Korean conglomerates in jail, business is simply unwilling to stick its neck out.