Hollywood Has Harvey Weinstein. South Korea Faces Its Own Demons.

Hollywood Has Harvey Weinstein. South Korea Faces Its Own Demons.

Se-Woong Koo
Se-Woong Koo

Hollywood is still reeling after the New York Times found that Harvey Weinstein, one of the industry’s most powerful figures, had sexually harassed and assaulted actresses for decades.

Then there is South Korea, where a similar debate is unfolding over how its own film industry is treating women.

Back in August, newspaper Donga Ilbo reported that an unnamed actress had filed a criminal complaint against Kim Ki-duk, a filmmaker equal parts controversial and revered for his award-winning movies (Samaritan Girl, 3-Iron, Pieta).

She alleged that Kim, after casting her as one of the main characters in his 2013 movie Moebius, slapped her in the course of the filming and forced her to participate in an unscripted sex scene. The actress ultimately abandoned the role and was replaced by another.

Kim denied coercing the actress, and South Korean prosecutors are investigating the allegation. But the case has cast a spotlight on rampant abuses in the business.

At a press conference last month, representatives from SHOOTING FEMI, “dedicated to fighting sexual violence and discrimination in the film industry,” and Women Link, a feminist solidarity organization, came together to list the most egregious practices some male directors engage in.

They include pressuring actresses to disrobe for a movie even when the contract precludes nudity, introducing scenes involving intimate physical contact without prior agreement, making actresses attend late-night drinking sessions, and agreeing to delete sex scenes filmed under pressure only to distribute them.

Gwak Hyun-hwa, another actress, recently disclosed that the director of her 2012 movie House with a Good View had forced her to reveal her breasts on film and then released the scene. Over the phone, he had pledged not to do so, and she had recorded the conversation as proof.

The director, Lee Soo-sung, was charged with sex crime, but was found not guilty in two separate trials after the court refused to consider the voice recording as evidence.

Gwak gave a tearful statement to the press on Sep. 11, explaining why she went ahead with the shoot despite her wish to the contrary. “I was afraid of being disliked. I was afraid of not being employed again in the film industry.”

In another development, on Friday Seoul High Court gave a suspended sentence to an actor accused of tearing an actress’s underwear and pushing his hand inside her pants during a film shoot. The topic has been trending on South Korean social media since then, with many internet users demanding to know the actor’s name. 

Some South Koreans say the Weinstein scandal may pale in comparison to the problem of sexual exploitation and harassment within the domestic film industry.

One Twitter user wrote: “I am reminded of the late Jang Ja-yeon. She gave up her life to expose to the world the ugly and wicked sexual exploitation of female celebrities.”

Jang Ja-yeon, an actress known for starring in the popular soap opera Boys Over Flowers, committed suicide in 2009. She left behind a letter alleging extensive sexual abuse in the hands of her agency and powerful industry figures. But the subsequent police investigation did not resolve the question of whether Jang had been forced to provide sexual service.


Cover image: Director Kim Ki-duk is among those accused of abusing or exploiting actresses in the South Korean film industry. (Credit: Ivan Bessedin/flickr – CC BY 2.0)

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