Sex Comes to the Arts

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Kim Dae Jung promised a new era of openness when he took office in 1998. That's one pledge he has kept, though perhaps not in the way he envisioned. You want freedom of expression? You got it. In the past year, South Koreans have been exposed to the tell-all chronicle of a popular actress' sexual coming of age. They have thrilled to a Lolita-esque film about a sexual liaison between an adult man and a teenage girl. They have been able to watch a movie that involves a ménage-à-trois and lesbian sex. The Land of the Morning Calm is suddenly looking more like the Land of the Midnight Romp. We are trying to encourage broader exercise of freedom of artistic expression, says Park Jie Won, Minister of Culture and Tourism.

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History Comes Tumbling Down In the bad old days of military dictators, works like these would have been banned, assuming anyone had dared to write or produce them. Within a year of taking office, Kim got rid of the arts review body that had been criticized for heavy-handed censorship and replaced it with a board that merely rates films for age appropriateness. One of its first acts was to lift a ban on Yellow Hair, a 1999 film that deals with dangerous and violent sex games. We would rather see the public engage in an open debate, says Park, to decide what is the socially acceptable limit on sexual expression.

This is new territory for South Korea, where, until now, sexual matters weren't discussed in public. Actress Suh Gap Sook's book I Also Want to Be a Porn Star shocked many Koreans when it was published last year and prompted state prosecutors to require that the book be stamped with warnings and wrapped in plastic when it hit store shelves. Predictably, sales soared. Then film director Jang Sun Woo came out in January this year with Lies, based on a book by Jang Jung Il, who was imprisoned on obscenity charges in 1996 for publishing a novel about a sadomasochistic relationship between a sculptor in his 30s and a teenage girl. I would have never dreamed about making a movie like Lies under the military dictators, says the film's producer, Shin Chul. I believe we now have democracy, so I dared.

The public response showed that South Koreans aren't all pleased with the new era of sexual frankness. It is just obscene pornography, says Kwon Jang Hee, secretary-general of the Committee to Eradicate Obscenity and Violence in the Media. The new rating board at first refused to rate Lies, saying its subject matter departs from socially accepted common notions. In the end Shin volunteered to cut 17 minutes' worth of film. The attendant publicity helped Lies pull 200,000 viewers in the first week of its release.
Lost in the uproar was the movie's message: Lies mocks the fascist aspect of Korean society, says Suh Jung Nam, a film professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. The protagonist is beaten by his disciplinarian father as a child and, as a man, decides that beating his girlfriend is an acceptable expression of love--just as the military government tortured democracy activists in the name of love for their country, says Shin. As for Hee and his committee, they have plenty of battles ahead. Next on the government's agenda: legislation to permit X-rated theaters. You want pornography? You got it.

Reported by Stella Kim/Seoul