Korean Censors in Retreat

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Korean TV broadcaster SBS decided that female performers could wear hot pants, but couldn’t expose their navels. KBS banned a music video because the singer didn’t wear a seat belt. And the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has slapped R19 labels on dozens of songs just for mentioning alcohol, including Psy’s “Right Now” for the line Life is toxic like alcohol, which was deemed obscene.

Preventing his song being played on TV and radio before 10 p.m., Psy wryly commented that the ban rather proved his point. It’s also just one of hundreds of similar decisions that have made K-pop censors a laughing stock.

More ominously, this over-zealousness is matched by increased policing of the Internet by the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration. It’s particularly accused of regularly abusing the vague National Security Law, which can be used to target any group deemed sympathetic to the North. Naturally, the government rejects such claims, but nevertheless Reporters Without Borders did list Korea as a country under surveillance in its March report titled Enemies of the Internet, placing it in the company of such paragons of free speech as Russia and Egypt. (Yes, I’d still rather live in Korea than Russia or Egypt, too, but that is indeed what press organizations are saying about it.)

It’s quite a sobering narrative of the last few years. But there is an alternative:

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the import and distribution of U.S. film Shortbus, ruling to annul the restricted screening rating imposed on the movie by the Korea Media Rating Board, on Thursday last week. Restricted screening virtually means a film cannot be screened in regular movie theaters. Thanks to the court’s ruling, Shortbus can be screened in cinemas. The controversial movie graphically portrays non-simulated sex scenes, such as group sex and masturbation…

(The Chosun Ilbo, January 23, 2009)

It went on to predict that Korean films were likely to feature much more vivid depictions of sex after the ruling. And, sure enough, 2010′s The Servant and the remake of The Housemaid would be noteworthy for their salacious content. Indeed, the former has been described as containing perhaps the most erotic scene ever witnessed in a Korean film, which probably explains why Korean audiences watched it in droves.

Facing stiff competition from Hollywood blockbusters, Korean filmmakers would repeat the strategy this year. First, with The Scent in April, which featured actress Park Si-yeon in the nude; then, with A Muse, which showed sex scenes between a teenage girl and a man in his 70s.

Next, in June, there wasThe Taste of Money, with steamy sex scenes between veteran actress Yoon Yeo-jeong (65) and Kim Kang-woo (34); and finally the historical drama The Concubine, with Jo Yeo-jeong’s nude scenes evoking those she did for The Servant. By the end of the month, it had become the 10th-most-watched film of 2012, beating out Prometheus and Men in Black 3 in the process.

Against the notion that Korea cinema might be liberalizing simply out of financial desperation, however, C.J Wheeler of Han Cinema argues that many of these risqué films are not simply for mature audiences because of what is seen on screen, but because the story itself demands maturity as a prerequisite for true appreciation of these adult orientated pieces of cinema.

Yet despite the censors’ best efforts, one can’t help but also notice a similar rapid sexualization of K-pop in recent years as entertainment companies struggle to make their groups stand out. Nor that the financial difficulties of the Korean film industry, wracked by explosive growth in TV ownership in the 1970s, may have been a partial—and under-appreciated—motivating factor in President Chun Doo-hwan’s Sex, Screen and Sport policy of the 1980s, which was otherwise designed at distracting the Korean public from politics.

On the other hand, liberalization is much more multi-faceted than simply more sex and nudity, and both Korean film and music have made genuine progress, particularly for women. The 1996 film The Adventures of Mrs. Park, for instance, was made into a comedy because the director so feared the public reaction to a wife happily and successfully running away from her husband and remarrying; in contrast, the 2009 film My Wife Got Married, in which Son Ye-jin demands two husbands, nary raised an eyebrow.

Or compare Caucasian men being used as the unlikely victims of girl-group S.E.S.’s wrath in their 2002 music video U, arguably because the Korean public wouldn’t have stood for Korean men in their place (there were many such de facto rules at the time), to 2NE1′s 2009 video for I Don’t Care, which features the members getting revenge on cheating Korean ex-boyfriends. And so on.

So the next time you read glib one-liners about censorship or liberalization, please bear in mind that the reality defies easy narratives; not least because supposedly prudish Koreans often prove anything but. And, with the online name-verification law recently being ruled unconstitutional, despite being Lee Myung-bak’s most emblematic—and notorious—censorship policy, perhaps a new consensus is emerging that Korean audiences really can handle free speech. If so, who knows just what they’ll be watching after the elections?


James Turnbull is a writer and public speaker on Korean feminism, sexuality and pop culture. He can be found at thegrandnarrative.com

Illustrations by Matt Ferguson. You can check out more of Matt’s excellent work at his website.


 

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