Madam Ema hit the theaters in 1982 as the most explicit of all Korean movies ever made. / Korea Times file
By Andrei Lankov
By the late 1970s the Korean movie industry was panicking. Korean cinema was dying, and this crisis had come out of the blue. As recently as 1969, things had looked very good. In 1969, the Korean movie industry produced 229 full length features. However, the situation changed dramatically towards the late 1970s. In 1975, production fell to 94 features, and kept going down.
There were two reasons for the crisis. The 1972-1979 Yushin dictatorship enforced strict censorship rules, and this made work difficult for many directors. However, by far the more important factor was the explosive growth of TV. Over the same period, from 1969 to 1975, TV ownership increased almost tenfold, from to 224,000 to 2.1 million sets. People did not go to cinema any more: they preferred to watch serials at home instead.
In 1980 General Chun Doo Hwan became the new military strongman, and his administration made it clear that it would encourage the growth of TV ― perhaps, on the assumption that this would distract people from politics.
In this desperate situation, the Korean producers found a solution, as old as humanity itself ― sex. Humans love to go forth and multiply, and movies about this engaging process have always sold well. The problem was censorship. In the 1970s the censorship was strict, and all "indecent" scenes were cut away. In the 1980s, the situation changed, but it took a trail blazer to test the limits of the permissible.
In early 1982 Madam Ema, the most explicit of Korean movies ever made, hit the theaters. Not much can be said about its plot which is, for all practical purposes, absent. It was an erotic movie, often bordering on the pornographic, so the major attraction was the seductive body shape of An So-yeong who played the lead role.
To everybody's surprise, the censors did not ask too many questions. Actually, the only change they demanded was a change in the movie title. The title, Ema puin is, actually, in Chinese rather than Korean (a not unusual phenomena in Korean where not only 70-80% of vocabulary but entire phrasal blocks often come from the language of the great neighbour). It was deliberately conceived in a way which hinted at Emmanuelle, the erotic classic which was also a great hit in Korea of the late 1970s. If written in Chinese characters, the title's original version meant "a lady who loves horses". Censors demanded a change in one of the characters, so the new title meant " a lady who loves hemp" (pronunciation and hangul spelling are same in both versions). Actually, the second title sounds even more dubious to me…
The decision to approve the movie was indicative of the political trends of those days. The Chun government harboured serious doubts about its own legitimacy. The Kwangju Revolt of May 1980 and its bloody suppression were still fresh in everybody's memory. Thus, the government approved the so-called "3S" policy. The "3S" stood for sex, screen, and sport. Mass entertainment should distract the people from politics, and Ema fitted the new policy line perfectly well.
Ema was a huge success. In March 1982 the movie was put on at an experimental late night show which attracted a huge crowd. The late night shows were another invention of the military regime which was preparing to lift a decades-old curfew. Ema was screened in the Seoul Theater, in the largest hall which could sit 1,500, but the owners sold 5,000 tickets! So powerful was the allure of the recently forbidden fruits: erotic movies and the possibility of being outside the house so late into the night. A police detachment had to be sent to the scene, but this did not help much ― the glass in the box office was broken by the crowd.
The success of Ema paved the way for a tidal wave of erotic movies. When the studios were losing money, an erotic show looked a sure winner. Sex sells, and does not require a large investment. The key elements of such movies are attractive young female bodies, which are never in short supply.
The pioneering Ema had 12 sequels, which were shot until the early 1990s. This makes it the longest series in the history of Korean cinema. It was very successful commercially as well ― the "first" Ema was seen by 310,000 people during the first year, and it became the box office champion of 1982. Some of the copycats were doing almost as well as the original
The censors were happy, but this emphasis on the "pleasures for the masses" did not save the military government: it was overthrown by a popular pro-democracy movement in 1987. An So-y?ng, who played the temptress in Ema series, retired from the cinema world and spent few years in New York where she helped her family run a tofu restaurant. Not quite the normal pastime for a former erotic super-star, but why not? Now she is trying to make a comeback to the TV and movie world.
The erotic video boom did not outlive the military regime which was largely responsible for it. The Korean studios continued to produce cheap erotic films, but from the early 1990s "serious" Korean cinema was reborn, and soon garnered great success. This is another (and great) story, of course, but let's not forget about the cheap erotic movies which helped the Korean industry survive the tough times !