Friday, September 20, 2013

Reptilian Style: The 'live-or-die general war' against Hollywood

The 1988 Seoul Olympics

Prologue 1: "Why can't Americans be Punished?"

Part 1:  The Seoul Olympics, 25 years later
Part 2:  The 1988 Olympics and Korean fears of AIDS
Part 3:  Americans and bad first impressions
Part 4:  Reptilian Style: The 'live-or-die general war' against Hollywood
Part 5:  An attack in a boxing ring
Part 6:  Media responses to the boxing ring incident
Part 7:  No more lion: US swimmers' 'prank' becomes 'diplomatic incident'
Part 8:  KAIST catches Big Ben
Part 9:  Hankyoreh interviews Korean witness to theft by swimmers
Part 10: Stop me if you've heard this one: Four GIs head to Itaewon in a taxi...
Part 11: Taxi-kicking US runner taken to Itaewon police box
Part 12: NBC uses the power of t-shirts to insult Korea... again
Part 13: Cultivating outrage toward America
Part 14: Politicians engage in damage control
Part 15: Heaven on Earth
Part 16: Hustler magazine tramples the purity of the Korean race 
Part 17: Stolen gold

Part 4: Reptilian Style: The 'live-or-die general war' against Hollywood

It wasn't just the US military presence in Korea or fear of Americans bringing AIDS or the American team goofing off during the opening ceremony that created bad impressions of America; there was also the long standing issue of the US trying to rectify the trade imbalance between Korea and the US by liberalizing the Korean economy - opening it up to American products - that created friction between the two countries.
In early 1988, with the Olympics on the horizon, the US began a new set of negotiations with the ROK which, it was predicted would lead to anti-Americanism, especially in regard to the importation of American beef (an issue which has been around for a long time)...

... and the dropping of import duties on American cigarettes.

Cigarettes became the new cause of the left:

I could only think when I read the above articles that, "Wow, you kids really don't want to study, do you?"

Nonghyup would, in 1990, distribute a comic to elementary school kids to encourage them to spy on their parents to stop them from buying imported products, including cigarettes.

After explaining to the smokers that he's stomping a pack of foreign cigarettes because foreign cigarettes hurt Korean farmers and break their hearts by forcing them to leave their homes, the two smokers feel embarrassed and decide never to smoke foreign cigarettes again.

As this book chapter on the Korean film industry reveals, Korea's film market was also targeted by the US for liberalization:
In 1988, in order to maintain preferential trade status and probably to appear pro-American, the government of the newly elected president Roh Tae-woo (1988–1993) capitulated to MPEA demands, granting Hollywood distributors an opening that had been sealed to insulate Korea from external, mostly ideological, influences. MPL amendments reduced screen quota restrictions, and censorship measures limiting the number of films and film prints were removed. MPEA member companies could now open branch offices in Seoul and directly distribute Hollywood films. The floodgate for change had been pried open, and the MPEA surged forward with a deluge of films. Korean cinema was expanding from the outside in and the inside out. During president Roh’s administration the Screen Quota System [SQS] remained fortified under neo-liberal economic and cultural policies; Roh’s Ministry of Culture mandated that every cinema must screen domestic films for a minimum of 106 days a year, or 29 per cent of total screening days. Although the government had preserved the integrity of the SQS, US distributors now had greater access to Korean audiences – a hostile foray that would soon encounter aggressive and highly organized resistance.

In September 1988, shortly after UIP opened its direct-distribution office and immediately before the Seoul Olympic Games, hundreds of filmmakers, stars, cultural protection advocates, opposition political party members, academics and film students protested against the Hollywood majors’ penetration of Korea by marching in the Myongdong ‘peace district’ area of Seoul. This was the first of many well-organized events designed to lure the world’s attention to the fight to protect Korea’s film industry. One of the first directly distributed US films was Paramount’s Fatal Attraction (1987). Protestors picketed Seoul cinemas screening this violent story about adultery. Red signs screamed ‘Yankee, go home’ and ‘Down with American movies’, drawing a frenzy of media attention (Park and Segers 1988). Protests called for a boycott of Fatal Attraction and other directly distributed American films because they were seen as a cultural invasion and a threat to Korea’s film industry. Staunch supporters of the industry had the reasonable fear that US pictures would dominate the market: in 1985 only 30 foreign films were imported, while in 1988 the figure increased fivefold to 176. Of dire concern was the prospect of US companies sucking the creative cinematic livelihood and all profits out of Korea’s film industry.
The Korea Herald reported the following on September 17 - the day the Olympics opened:
Korean film circles are up in arms over the granting of screen time to United International Pictures.

According to the Motion Picture Producers Association of Korea, nine cinemas around the country struck deals to show foreign films exclusively supplied by UIP, the overseas distributor for Paramount, Universal, and MGM/UA.

The members of the association staged rallies yesterday at the Korea Theatre in Myongdong and the Shinyoung theatre in Shinchong-dong.

The protesters voiced strong objections against the direct distribution by UIP, arguing that the American penetration through the huge mobilization of funds will, for certain, destroy the poorly financed Korean film industry.

UIP has been keeping a low profile as public and industry concern about the American film ‘invasion’ has been widespread since the film market liberalization a couple of years ago.

The owners of cinemas have promised to give no play time to any UIP-supplied titled, according to a cinema owner. He said the ‘traitors’ would ‘suffer.’

‘We are going to intimidate the betrayers into nullifying the deals and our fight is a live-or-die general war,” stressed Lee Tae-won, president of the producers association in an interview with the Korea Herald.
After saying that they would try to get the offending threaters investigated and even shut down for tax evasion or violations of the screen law, the protesters asserted that
The focus of the protest, however, is not on the legal distribution of films by UIP, but on the offering of places to screen pictures. “We don’t object to UIP’s operation here, as is vested in the laws,” said Lee Nak-hoon, president of Hyundai Filco. “But we can reprimand the cinema for providing the Americans with a beachhead in Korea.”
In other words, "We don't want to stop you from eating, or anything like that, since you do have that right, but we'll intimidate anyone who sells you food in order to get them to stop. But we're not against you eating or anything." Pretty soon they drop all pretenses and begin acting like thugs, because, hey, the Korean middleman who contributes nothing more than his passport to a foreign venture is a sacred part of Korean culture, apparently.

Protest in front of the Korea Theater in Myongdong on September 16.

As reported by the Korea Herald on September 22, on September 19, directors also began holding protests, and were shocked to find out that UIP would release Fatal Attraction in Korean theaters willing to show it on September 24, a week after the Olympics started.
“UIP’s dealing with Korean theatres without overt consultations with Korean directors or manifestations through mass media clearly shows America has looked down on Korean cinema circuit, demonstrating a high-handed attitude to the disregard of the Korean people,” asserted director Kim Sung-soo.

“As for the quality of Korean films, we directors cannot be exonerated from public accusations, but UIP’s ‘sneaking’ infiltration is a fatal blow to our pride,” director Choi Young-chul said in a strong rebuke against the American distributor releasing “Fatal Attraction.”
"Down with American films!" shout directors at the Guild of Film Directors' office.

“Fatal Attraction’ is ‘fatal’ to Korean audiences,” say striking directors. The poster, framed in black ink, hangs on the Guild of Film Directors office wall.

As reported by the Korea Herald on September 25, the previous day – the day Fatal Attraction opened – about 300 people from the film industry protested in front of the Korea Theater in Myong-dong and as well as a smaller protest at the Shinyoung theatre in Shinchong-dong.

Protest in front of the Korea Theater in Myongdong on September 24.

It notes that the “protesters promised in advance not to resort to violent clashes with any party including “innocent” theatregoers.” This attitude would change by the end of the week.

On October 1, the Korea Times reported that
On Wednesday [Sept. 28], dozens of movie directors stormed into Shinyong Theatre, one of two theatres in Seoul showing “Fatal Attraction,” to stop the screening of the movie. The protesters drove out 30 spectators and wrote “Drive out Yankee movies” with spray cans on the screen and walls.
Yeah, y'know, I think 1936 just called, and it wants its brownshirts back.

Here's a photo from the Korea Herald from September 30 of the protests in front of the Shinyong Theatre in Sinchon on the 28th (the same day). Directors and screenwriters are quoted as shouting "Drive out American movies."

As the Hankyoreh reported on September 20, MPAA head Jack Valenti said "that threats have been received that “live snakes will be set loose” in theatres dealing directly with American film companies in order to surprise the audience and cause them to flee."

As the LA Times reported on October 11, this wasn't an empty threat, and things were far, far uglier than the Korean papers were letting on.
The other night, about 80 persons ran screaming out of a movie theater in Seoul at which "Fatal Attraction" was showing.

But it wasn't the suspense on the screen that horrified the movie fans. It was snakes in the theater.

An attempt to sabotage the showing of the Academy Award-winning film has developed into the latest in a series of emotional flare-ups between the United States and South Korea. As the first movie that a foreign company has imported here under a newly won right to distribute directly to theaters, the picture has become the target of what diplomats here call "a campaign of intimidation and violence."

Led by Korean producers-importers who have pocketed most of the profits from screenings of U.S. films to date, the campaign is taking its toll daily.

Raising a banner of an alleged need to protect Korean culture, the Korean middlemen have won support from directors, producers, film stars and even newspapers, which have refused advertising for the film. Two theaters in Pusan, one in Inchon and one in Kwangju, which had booked "Fatal Attraction," have backed down and are not screening it. And would-be patrons at eight theaters throughout the country that are showing it have been driven away in droves.

On Monday, one of the two theaters showing the film in Seoul said it will stop screenings on Thursday.

Patrons are "abused or taunted. People are afraid to go in," said Mike S. Pae, general manager of Universal International Pictures (Korea), importers of the film. Prospects for profits are "terrible," he added.

Protestors, led by Lee Tae Won, a major film distributor and president of the Korean Motion Picture Producers Assn., started staging sit-ins and rallies at the entrances of two Seoul theaters when the film opened during the Olympics. Ink was splattered on signs advertising the movie, and, on one occasion, demonstrators broke into a theater, painted the screen with graffiti, and lined up on stage, shouting slogans as the movie was being shown.

"Thugs," according to a diplomat here, who asked to have his identity kept secret, "attacked and beat up employees of one of the cinemas in Seoul and made threats of violence and arson" against owners of both Seoul theaters.

Then came the snakes.

Two days after the movie opened, eight nonpoisonous garden snakes were found in one Seoul theater. Two days after that, snakes were found in the women's restroom. At the other theater, snakes were let loose twice, the last time sending 80 patrons "running out of the theater in panic," Pae said.

That incident occurred during the last showing of the day, after demonstrators had gone home and about 480 persons had entered the theater. For most showings, the audience has not exceeded 40 persons, Pae said.

The protesters, he added, "are barbaric."

Police, who have detained some of the protesters but released all of them without filing charges, "have not been cooperative," Pae charged. [...]

The imbroglio marks the fourth time that an American trade dispute has stirred up a nationalistic furor here. Exports of Korean photo albums to the United States and imports of American beef and cigarettes were the focal points of earlier outbursts.

Already, the furor has turned into a new diplomatic issue.
Click the link to read the rest of the story. Worth reiterating is that this was all taking place during the Olympics, and things would get worse the next year, when poisonous snakes were let loose in one theater, along with four bottles of hydrochloric acid planted in the aisles.

As is later noted in the LA Times story, 'Except for the Economic Planning Board, the diplomat said, "everyone in the Korean government is unsympathetic."' This would be because by the time that story was written, an Olympics-inspired anti-American wave had washed over Korea. We'll look at the incident that opened the floodgates next.


King Baeksu said...

"Pretty soon they drop all pretenses and begin acting like thugs, because, hey, the Korean middleman who contributes nothing more than his passport to a foreign venture is a sacred part of Korean culture, apparently."

Hey, it wouldn't have been the first or last time that Korean nationalism was mobilized for narrow "special" interests -- which ironically enough may not even be supported by a majority of the minjok. (If that isn't the very definition of ideological totalitarianism, what is?)

“UIP’s dealing with Korean theatres without overt consultations with Korean directors or manifestations through mass media clearly shows America has looked down on Korean cinema circuit, demonstrating a high-handed attitude to the disregard of the Korean people,” asserted director Kim Sung-soo.

See above. As if film directors -- Korean, American or otherwise -- have any right to veto power over rival or independent film distributors!

"The focus of the protest, however, is not on the legal distribution of films by UIP, but on the offering of places to screen pictures. 'We don’t object to UIP’s operation here, as is vested in the laws,” said Lee Nak-hoon, president of Hyundai Filco. “But we can reprimand the cinema for providing the Americans with a beachhead in Korea.'"

Evidently this was said after several bottles of snake liquor.

Mark Russell said...

Fascinating stuff. I did not know the Shinyoung Theater was involved, too (that's the site of the CGV Artreon today).

Good point by King Baeksu about how often these hot-button issues of national pride coincide with rents by particular economic groups. When the Korean public is allowed to "vote" with their wallets, they rarely seem much interested in supporting the various blowhards protesting and making so much noise.

Unknown said...

Another case of intimidation for economic reasons:

The movie Titanic came out during the economic crisis, and one of the popular memes was to keep money in the country by buying domestic products. (Chilsung Cider's slogan at the time was something like "No Color! No Calories! No Royalties!".)

I remember before the movie came out that there was a rumor (whispering campaign?) that Leonardo DiCaprio (or a friend of his) said that Korea was a dirty country, which led to attempts to boycott the movie as well as Internet posts threatening harm to the actor. I remember one from a schoolgirl who wrote that she wanted to slash his face with a knife for insulting Korea.

A Korean entertainment program even sent an interviewer to confront a puzzled DiCaprio about it, who didn't know about the rumor.

If I remember correctly, though, the plan backfired, and Titanic became the highest grossing movie in Korean history at the time.


King Baeksu said...

"Fatal Attraction" -- a pretty good description of South Korea's disruptive, hard-to-end "affair" with globalization. The question is, who's the Glenn Close figure, and who's Michael Douglas? I'm going with South Korea playing the role of the spurned woman who's outraged after being "used" by the "respectable" married man, i.e., the US. From Wikipedia:

"The film's female lead has been discussed by psychiatrists and film experts, and has been used as a film illustration for the condition borderline personality disorder. The character displays the behaviors of impulsivity, emotional lability, frantic efforts to avoid abandonment, frequent severe anger, self-harming, changing from idealization to devaluation, consistent with the diagnosis, although generally aggression to the self rather than others is a more common feature in borderline personality disorder."

Martial infidelity was certainly in the air in South Korea in the 1980s. 1982's "애마부인," for instance, was a huge hit. Obviously, it was the corrupting influence of the dastardly US, and South Korea's "fatal attraction" for it, that was responsible for the breakdown in South Korea's social mores and values. Protest and fight all you want, it still doesn't matter -- the dirty deed was already done a long time ago, wasn't it?