South Korean Actress Lee Young-jin Reveals Why She Spoke Out Against Kim Ki-duk

Kim Ki-duk - Getty - H 2016
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The Seoul International Women's Film Festival hosted a discussion panel about recent cases of sexual assault and violence stemming from gender hierarchy and abuse of power in the Asian country.

In the wake of South Korea's own version of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, with Venice Golden Lion-winning filmmaker Kim Ki-duk being accused of sexual abuse, the Seoul International Women's Film Festival made sure to address the #MeToo movement during its 20th edition.

On Monday, the world's largest film event for women, showing 147 films from 36 countries this year, presented Anita, a 2013 Sundance documentary on Anita Hill, the American attorney who became a national figure more than 20 years ago when she accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. The Seoul event hosted a panel following the screening to discuss recent cases of sexual assault and violence stemming from gender hierarchy and abuse of power in the Asian country. South Korean actress Lee Young-jin and Chung Hyun-back, the minister of gender equality and family, joined other experts for the heated session.

"Before #MeToo, there weren't many known cases of sexual misconduct in the [Korean] film industry compared to other sectors, but it's because it was difficult to speak out in what is a very, very closed environment — and not because of a lack of abuse," said Lee, who made local headlines earlier this year when she openly commented on allegations against Kim Ki-duk, saying, "Something that was bound to burst has finally erupted."

An emerging actress who was just beginning to gain popularity through supporting roles, Lee was surprised, she said, by how her statement drew unprecedented nationwide media attention. Even though the #MeToo movement gained momentum with women going public across the legal, political and fine arts/theater sectors, relatively few South Korean female stars have publicly spoken out about the issue in the entertainment scene. Actresses who have accused Kim Ki-duk and other high-profile men in the industry have chosen to remain anonymous and are also protected by local human rights and media standards.

"I was subject to personal attacks through social media after I criticized Kim Ki-duk," Lee said, explaining how she received hate messages containing profanity, as well as explicit photos of male genitalia. "But I believed that if no one says anything during this time of active feminist movement, then it would be even more difficult later on. I simply wanted to say something to support the victims."

In spite of the threats, Lee said she "feels empowered by the feminist movement." The actress continued, "I was right to say what I did. I am still learning myself, but what I can say is that it takes a lot of courage for female celebrities to even say they support feminism and partake in the movement."

"I believe there remain many voices that have yet to be heard [in the local film industry]," she added.

South Korea remains largely governed by patriarchal social codes. The World Economic Forum ranks the country 115th out of 145 in terms of gender equality, and a recent report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says it has one of the highest rates of female homicide victims at 52.5 percent. Now, with #MeToo and South Korea's #WithYou movement gaining steam, the local Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has promised tougher laws on sexual crimes. Since 2014, the ministry has been operating a special help center for victims to prevent secondary damage through media exposure and to provide legal support and psychiatric counseling.

"The problem with the arts and culture sector is that abuse occurs in [situations that aren't necessarily protected by organizations or an office environment], so different measures must be taken," said Chung.

A more serious issue, however, is the secondary damage that victims often experience through unwanted media exposure. "Victims won't be able to report on crimes if we don't curb secondary damage," said the minister, explaining how a new media guideline was recently drafted in cooperation with the Journalists Association of Korea and other related bodies.

The 20th Seoul International Women's Film Festival continues through Thursday.