A court case brought by South Korean distributor Indiestory against the national Media Ratings Board, has resulted in a groundbreaking decision that is likely to curtail the board's power to censor films.
The ruling, by the country's highest legal authority, the Constitutional Court, renders as unconstitutional the practice of denying ratings to controversial releases, such as Indiestory's Yellow Flower, Lee Ji-sang's 16mm "meditation on sex", for which the board refused to allocate a certificate.
Under current law, films released in Korea are assigned one of four ratings by the government-appointed Media Ratings Board: General, 12+, 15+ and 18+ (only those whose age equals or exceeds the recommended level are admitted).
In recent years, the ratings board has adopted the practice of denying ratings to films containing extreme sexuality or violence. Producers of such films have been forced to wait many months before reapplying to the board, presumably with the offensive scenes altered or removed.
On August 31, as a result of legal action by Indiestory, the Constitutional Court ruled the denial of ratings to be in violation of the nation's Film Promotion Law, which prohibits government pre-censorship of any kind. The ruling goes into effect immediately, but legal battles are expected to continue, with many citizens' groups and lawmakers opposed to any relaxation of censorship.
In 1999, the domestic release of the heavily-censored Korean film Lies was delayed five months due to conflicts with the ratings board. Imported features Happy Together and Eyes Wide Shut have faced one-year delays before being censored for release.
Recent news reports indicate that there is pressure to change the 18+ rating to a 19+ rating in the near future to coincide with the legal age for adulthood. At the moment this appears unlikely to happen, however. In addition, the government has proposed an additional Adult classification for films which may only be screened at specially-designated adult theaters. However this measure will have to be passed by South Korea's National Assembly, where it faces opposition.