Having It Both Ways: Korea Promotes and Censors Films

Film festivals abound, but censors in South Korea still snip away.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) is a dream come true for South Korea's "globalization" campaign, a multifaceted official effort to promote Korean culture to the world and expose Koreans to international society.

Only in its second year, PIFF is already being touted as Asia's premier film festival. While the southern port city basked in its glory last week, PIFF organizers said the event was a success and that they had achieved their goal of introducing Korean cinema to a wider international audience.

But to the government, globalization only goes so far. While showcasing Korea for the world is fine, showing some aspects of the world to Koreans is beyond the government's approval. For Korean leaders, the globalization campaign isn't just a vague slogan, but an attempt to move their country away from its old nickname - "The Hermit Kingdom."

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In the weeks leading up to PIFF, government censors shut down a human rights film festival and wouldn't allow a gay and lesbian film festival in Seoul.

Movies about homosexuals would horrify conservative Korean society, officials say in their defense, and organizers of the human rights festival failed to submit films to proper review procedures.

In reality, organizers say, government officials were concerned about letting the public see an an antigovernment human rights film.

The Second Annual Human Rights Film Festival, screened earlier this month, showed films ranging in subject from the Nazi Holocaust to Bolivia's treatment of its indigenous people to South Korea's pro-democracy struggle.

But a movie called "Red Hunt" caused "all our trouble," says Kim Chang Ah, an organizer of the festival. South Korea's government reportedly massacred between 30,000 and 80,000 people on Cheju Island in order to root out Communist sympathizers between 1948 and 1955. The incident's details are obscure here and the government was nervous about allowing a potentially antigovernment movie to be shown, says Ms. Kim, the organizer.

The First Queer Film and Video Festival, slated to begin at the end of September, never opened after threats of fines and confiscation of equipment. Organizers say that in July the government banned "Happy Together," a movie about a gay Asian couple.

"It deals with gay culture," says Kim Ju Shik, a governmental official explaining the decision.

But the government insists censorship is a thing of the past and has abolished it in favor of a ratings system.

Last fall, the Constitutional Court overturned pre-screening censorship in favor of a ratings system. In line with the decision, the Public Ethics Committee for Performing Arts became the Performing Arts Promotion Committee, administrated by a private arts organization instead of the government.

Criteria for the new system haven't been established yet, but "I wouldn't say [they'll be] more liberal [than previous standards]," says Mr. Kim, the government official. "We're going to make some adjustments according to the general atmosphere of society."

"We have to placate [government censors] to some extent," says Paul Yi, a PIFF coordinator. But "the government sees Pusan as valuable [for promoting Korean culture ... abroad.] Hopefully, next year we can show everything," Mr. Yi says. The Pusan festival "sold out like a Rolling Stones concert," he says.

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