Erotic film fest pushes the envelope in Korea

Pink Film Festival celebrates Japanese erotic satire

SEOUL -- Saturday's kickoff of the second annual Pink Film Festival marked another step in the gradual erosion of two long-held Korean taboos.

Before the late 1990s, neither erotic films nor films from Japan were shown in cinemas here, reflecting the influence of the country's strong Christian base as well as the government's distaste for cultural influences from Japan, its colonial ruler from 1910-45.

The festival of Japanese pinku eiga, or pink film, celebrates an erotic genre of satire that came of age in Japan's indie film scene in the 1960s, but 40 years later, there are still limits to Korea's nascent openness.

For starters, the festival is only open to women on opening night in each of the four cities where the festival will travel this month and on designated "couples days" -- Wednesdays and Saturdays.

As the monthlong fest opened here in a cozy east Seoul multiplex, men made up most of the crowd, curious to glimpse on the big screen films previously available only from vendors' carts in the city's backstreets.

Included in this year's lineup are Kazuhiro Sano's "Don't Let It Bring You Down," Osamu Sato's "Slave" and a special screening in the "pink hard core" section of a director's cut of Mitsuru Meike's political satire "Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai."

Festival coordinator Ahn Jong-seon said that many female guests came away disappointed that the films weren't racy enough.

"The reaction was something we hadn't expected, given that there were a lot of hyped concerns among the festival programmers that many women would have stereotypes about Japanese erotic films," Ahn said.

Under South Korea's military regime in the 1960s, lewdness became a central concern for the country's censors. The state controlled the number of films allowed to shoot each year and inspected all scripts.

These traditions continued through the late '90s, even after the country's courts ruled that censorship violated the Korean constitution.

The censorship debate peaked in 1999, when the government's Media Rating Board blocked the release of a Korean film depicting sexual relations between a schoolgirl and a sculptor. "Lies" finally was released after cutting 17 minutes.

Korean openness to eroticism and nudity on film has evolved with the times, but still is colored by a degree of modesty.

One 28-year-old first-time festivalgoer watching Hidekazu Takahara's "Tsumugi," about a schoolgirl seducing her married teacher, called herself a fan of Japanese genre films but spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"I was disappointed at how conventional the film turned out to be. It was nowhere near the level of adult content you see on the Internet nowadays," she said.

Korea's former ban on Japanese films, books and music was lifted in 1998 with the import of the Takeshi Kitano film "Hana-Bi." Since then, the number of Japanese releases has risen steadily, as has their popularity. Films such as "Love Letter" and Hayao Miyazaki's animated "Howl's Moving Castle" reached more than 1 million Korean moviegoers.

Attending Saturday's opening-night festivities, Korean screenwriter Kim Hyoung-ki ("Vampire Cop Rickie," "2009 Lost Memories") said that the only way for the Pink Film Festival to survive is to "provide a self-censoring tool by carefully judging films that meet the standard of a serious film festival. That's the only way to make the abolition of censorship worthwhile."