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Korean films of the ’80s: Why so erotic?

On Feb. 6, 1982, director Jung In-yeop’s legendary erotic romance “Madame Ae-ma” was released at the Seoul Cinema Theater in Jongno, central Seoul.

The venue was completely packed with an excited crowd, and fierce competition for tickets ensued, resulting in broken windows. It was the first Korean movie to be screened late at night, after the nightly curfew had been lifted exactly one month before. The sexually explicit film, which is considered one of the iconic works of 1980s Korean cinema, drew 315,000 viewers in just four months after its release. It inspired more than 10 sequels, becoming the longest running series in Korea’s film history.

“Madame Ae-ma” was one of the cultural products of Chun Doo-hwan’s military regime in the 80s, and its famous “Sex, Sports and Screen” ― the “3S” ― policy. The three were made into major sources of entertainment for the public, to take their interest away from politics ― after Chun’s military coup took power in 1980 while crushing the democratization movements nationwide.

During Chun’s eight-year dictatorship, pro baseball and soccer leagues were established for the first time in Korea. In 1981, Seoul won the rights to host the 1988 Summer Olympics and the 1986 Asian Games. Color TVs were distributed country-wide, the sex industry boomed, and the nightly curfew was officially abolished. People started hitting movie theaters and bars late at night.

Some of the most striking cultural legacies of Chun’s military regime are, inarguably, the vast number of racy films produced in the time period. Almost all of the released films had sexually suggestive themes, with explicit posters and titles.

Movie theaters put up promotional film banners that screamed sex: It usually consisted of pictures of women moaning in pleasure, revealing their cleavage and other parts of their bodies. The titles included “Between the Knees” and “Prostitution.” 
A poster of Lee Jang-ho’s “Eoh Wu-dong” (1985), one of the racy films released in the ’80s that was influenced by Chun’s “3S” policy. (Korean Film Archive)
A poster of Lee Jang-ho’s “Eoh Wu-dong” (1985), one of the racy films released in the ’80s that was influenced by Chun’s “3S” policy. (Korean Film Archive)

“It was pretty much a carrot-and-stick method,” said film curator Kim Sang-cheol of the Korean Film Archive.

“While being extremely repressive politically, the regime thought it was necessary to provide an alternative outlet for the public to express their oppressed desire. The outlets took the forms of live-TV sports broadcast and sexually suggestive movies.”

Even the legendary Im Kwon-taek could not get away with Chun’s cultural agenda in the 80s. The director, who has made more than 100 films since his 1962 debut feature “Farewell to the Duman River,” was once asked by Chun’s administration to create a documentary to simply glorify the 1988 Seoul Olympics. His works released in the 80s include the famous erotic period drama “Surrogate Woman,” where its leading actress Kang Soo-yeon played in a number of sex scenes as a young Joseon surrogate mother of a low caste, who gets abused by a ruthless aristocratic family.

According to curator Kim, no movie was allowed to be socially conscious or critical of the government in any way under Chun’s regime. The only subject-matter that was approved by the censors was, ironically, sex and nudity.

“The filmmakers and producers really had no choice,” said Kim. “They wanted to make movies and had to earn a living. The result was the outpouring of racy, erotic films that practically dominated the scene at the time.”

Director Lee Jang-ho has mixed feelings about the ’80s. It was the era where he experienced some of the biggest box-office triumphs in his life. His 1984 erotic thriller “Between the Knees,” which told the story about a repressed young woman with an abnormal, uncontrollable libido, was the second-most viewed film of that year. “Eoh Wu-dong,” Lee’s 1985 erotic biopic of the ambitious female artist and writer from 15th century Joseon, won its leading actress Lee Bo-hee Best Actress at the Paeksang Arts Awards.

But Lee also remembers having to submit his initial scripts to the government even before pre-production. He remembers “nothing ever being approved” by the authorities.

Prior to his 1983 comedy “Declaration of Idiot,” a film of which Lee is not very fond, he had released films that delved deep into issues of human degradation and the underbelly of society.

Among them was his 1981 drama “The People at Dark Streets,” a cinematic portrait of a severely impoverished young woman who sells herself for survival. Lee initially wanted to make a sequel to the film but his script was repeatedly turned down by the censors of the government.

“‘The People at Dark Streets’ was a box office hit, but the government banned it from being exported overseas, simply because it dealt with the dark side of society,” Lee told The Korea Herald.

“I was pretty much blacklisted. After getting my scripts turned down for the movie’s sequel, I wrote this dumb script which purposely went totally opposite from what I thought was ideal. That script got approved by the censors, and turned out to be ‘Declaration of Idiot.’ I made ‘Between the Knees’ and ‘Eoh Wu-dong’ after that.”

In spite of the limited options he had, Lee made his own efforts to give the racy films some substance. In “Between the Knees,” he indirectly criticizes the Korean public who idolized Western culture without any judgment, by creating a young, troubled female character whose middle-class family members try to be everything that’s considered “American.”

His period drama “Eoh Wu-dong” was once again censored even after its official release, as one of its scenes, where the Joseon female artist sexually seduces and pokes fun at the king, was considered “too political” and “metaphorically resistant” to Chun’s regime. The scene was ordered to be cut and the movie was re-released after the part was removed.

Despite his efforts, however, Lee said he is not proud of his works released under Chun’s regime.

“I did make my efforts in ‘Between the Knees,’ but in the end, it really is very much like porn,” he told The Korea Herald. “I’m not proud because I gave in. I feel like I should’ve tried harder and made the movies that I really wanted to make.”

However, some think a number of sexually suggestive films from the ’80s, including “Eoh Wu-dong” and “Madame Ae-ma,” explored the autonomy of female sexuality for the first time in Korea’s film history, and therefore are significant.

“Dealing with female sexuality in the ’80s, the erotic films tried to reach female liberation,” wrote scholar and film critic Kang So-won in her 2006 thesis titled “The Representation of Sexuality and Gender in Korea’s Erotic Films in the ’80s.”

“Films such as “Madame Ae-ma” and “Eoh Wu-dong” introduced female characters who daringly challenge the Confucian patriarchy and male-dominated society ― as the subject of their own desires.”

The Korean Film Archive is currently holding special online screenings of sexually suggestive movies from the ’80s. It features a total of 10 films from the period, including director Lee’s “Between the Knees” (1984) and “Eoh Wu-dong” (1985); Jung In-yeop’s “Madame Ae-ma” (1982); Jeong Jin-woo’s “Parrot Cries with its Body” (1981); and Jeong Ji-young’s “Mist Whispers Like Women” (1982).

One can watch the 10 movies for free online during the month of July at For more information, call (02) 3153-2027.

By Claire Lee (