Like most other developed countries, South Korea’s film industry has had a great influence on the public. As films can affect the public with their great popularity and their vivid audio-visual effect, it has such influence that alarms the government to place strict regulations which the films must follow in order to be viewed by the public. This control on the film industry and filmmakers resulted in film censorship. The censorship often changed depends on the government's attitude toward the social structure and films. Thus, the filmmakers could not criticize the government in any aspect, instead, they could only promote and support the government. Consequently, the filmmakers were not allowed to freely express their creativity as well as their ideas and thoughts, and these restrictions lead to the decline of the film industry. There are 2 major time periods where film censorship strongly impacted on the growth of the film industry in South Korea, namely, the period during Colonial Korea which was under Japanese Rule (Japanese occupation) and the period when the film industry were under heavily surveillance from the new military regime.
Film was first introduced during the Chosun dynasty (1897–1910) and it gained popularity along with superfluous positive outcomes from its viewers. As a result, it could be the great introduction of Western culture and high technology as well. However, when Japan took over the country, they started to take control of the film industry by establishing film censorship regulations which prohibited to make scenes that might damage image of the Japanese Empire. And also, films that deterred war related objective or praised America were prohibited. The film censorship laws such as the Motion Picture Censorship Regulation and the Chosun Motion Picture Law were introduced during the Colonial Period.
The Motion Picture Censorship Regulation includes:
- All foreign and domestic films needed for approval before screened
- Japanese police must attend at the time of screenings
The Chosun Motion Picture Law includes: 1) Requirement to obtain license in the film industry 2) Prior restraint of films 3) Punishment for infractions of the law
The major reason for establishing such laws were to strengthen control of the public since such media were excellent vehicles to influence its viewers. They required filmmakers not to harm the image of the Japanese Empire nor praise their enemy in order to prevent any form of doubt on the Japanese dominance. They closed down several Korean film production companies and banned some of films that were disadvantageous to the Japanese Empire.
Major films influenced by censorship:Bloody Horse (1928) directed by Hong Kae-myung
A Ferry Boat that No One Owns (Imjaeobtneun naleutbae) (1932) directed by Lee Kyu-hwan
Film censorship had a tremendous impact on the South Korean film industry during the years between 1973 and 1992. Consequently, Korean movies experienced its biggest hindrance which is now known to be the depression period. During this period, film censorship was strongly enforced under the military regime by Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan. They both realized that media was the most influential channel used at the time that affected how people viewed the government. Prior to 1987, the government enacted the First Motion Picture Law to take control of the film industry. This law did not allow the industry to freely produce the movie if the contents were not met to their criteria. President Park Chung Hee established the Motion Picture Promotion Corporation (MPPC) to support the film industry. However, Park’s main purpose was to safeguard antigovernment issues played in the movie more so than supporting the film industry.
Elements of MPPC: 1) License system 2) Import quotas to set a limitation on how many films to be produced 3) Strong censorship. The filmmakers could only depict the positive side rather than negative side of Korean society, thus, the movies were not expressed the way they wanted which lead to poor results. The filmmakers continuously pushed the government to amend their censorship laws in order to promote freedom of expression, but the attempts were futile due to unyielding political influence and this was the main contribution to decline of South Korea’s film industry.
The history of Korean movies has lasted for over a hundred years, since the very first movie was played; but it hasn’t ever been free from government censorship. In 1907, the inspector general made the security law, which stated that anything that is performed in public can be regulated and controlled by the government. And when Korea was under Japanese rule, censorship was more strongly regulated than ever before. The Governor-General of Korea made an activity regulation committee in 1920 and performance regulation rules in 1922. In the movie ‘General's Son,’ there is the scene of Japanese police sitting right next to the stage and arresting anyone who shows signs of propagandas to the public. Many movies were censored at this period of time. “Across the Tumen River” could be released after deletion of some scenes and changes of the name of the movie to “To Find Love.” “Ben-Hur” had been issued because the silent-firm narrator encouraged national consciousness.
In 1960, after the April Revolution, the national movie ethic committee was founded which was the very first public organization that evaluated movies without government watch. As a result, “Aimless Bullet” and “A Coachman” that were about national consciousness could be played in the theatre. After the 5.16 military coup, a military government emerged and amended the constitution. The amendment stated that for public morals and social ethics, the government can censor movies or entertainment. After the amendment, “ Aimless bullet” was shut down at the theatre because one line in the movie says ‘Let’s go’ which they stated meant “Let’s go to the north.” During that time period, the anti-communism law allowed for the Central Intelligence Agency to arrest people, which they then used to arrest Man-hee lee, director of “Seven Women Prisoners ”. They stated that he described the North Korean Army as good and cool. They also released him under the condition that he had to make an anti-communism movie, which is why he made “Soldier Without Service Number” They arrested him again because he had cast a good looking guy for North Korean army. During this period of time, all the movies that were made also had to pass scenario censorship and after the movies were made. There was the other censorship, so all the movies had to pass two censorships from government. More than 80 percent of movies had to be revised before even filming the movie. For example, the movie ‘Fool’s March’ had many parts of the script had to be deleted even before the film was made. This led to a half hour of the film being deleted.
After South Korea opened the Olympics in 1988, it became possible to import the movies about communism and the censorship level for eroticism was loosened; but not many things had been changed. In September 1996, 10 minutes of the opening movie Crash from David Cronenberg was deleted, which led to great shame at the international movie festival. One month later, The Constitutional Court ruled that the censorship was unconstitutional. Following that rule, the movie laws had to be changed, and the Korea Media Rating Board was founded. They also made an additional rating level which was over R rating. It is reserved for movies that cannot be shown in regular movie theatres and can only be shown in designated unrated theaters which do not even exist in Korea. This means that movie makers have to delete the scenes in order for their films to receive an R rating. Even though the Korea Movie Rating Board does not have the power to regulate the scenes in the movies; they can imply that the movie makers need to censor the movies in order for the film to be shown.
In recent years, sexual scenes have been a major issue that pits filmmakers against Media Rating Board. Pubic hair and male or female genitalia is disallowed on the screen, unless they are digitally blurred. In rare cases extreme violence, obscene language, or certain portrayals of drug use may also become an issue. Korea has 5 different levels of rating systems; G, PG-12, PG-15, PG-18 and Restricted Rate. These are ruled by the Presidential Decree. The first movie that was rated reservation rate was ‘Yellow Hair.’ The fact that this movie got the reservation rate made more people watch this movie than usual. This movie was rejected in early 1999 before being rated an 18+ rate on its second application, after a sex scene between two women and one man was partially cut and digitally altered. The movie ‘Lies’ sued the Movie Rating Board for reservation rating to the Constitutional Court and the Court ruled that the reservation rate was unconstitutional. They changed from the reservation rate to Restricted Rate. It didn’t make any difference than reservation rate because the Board made restricted rate movie theatres afterward; they all went to bankrupt or shut down. So basically the movies that received an R-rating lost their place to be shown. The movie “I Saw the Devil (2010)” could be shown at the theatre after deletion of one and half minutes of the movie.
The 2014 film, The Interview was banned in South Korea because it depicts of criticizing and killing of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Although it was available in black markets, in 2015, a North Korean-defector sent unlicensed copies of the film via a helium balloon into the DMZ.