When Sponge Entertainment CEO David Cho picked up John Cameron Mitchell's sexually explicit US indie Shortbus for South Korea back in 2006, he knew he was in for a fight. Now, after more than two years battling the Korea Media Ratings Board (KMRB), Sponge finally opened the film commercially on March 12.

'Hedwig And The Angry Inch was such a great buzz film, we naturally took an interest in Mitchell's next one,' Cho explains. Hedwig had totted up 15,015 admissions on its release in 2002 and reached cult status in Korea, as did the stage musical version.

'We got some materials from (the film's sales agent) Fortissimo and watched Shortbus in Cannes in 2006. We saw it at a market screening and people were having so much fun watching it, they clapped and cheered. I decided to take the film. One hundred per cent of the people in the Republic of Korea would have told you Shortbus would never get a rating,' he says. In South Korea, it is illegal to screen a film without a rating.

In fact, Shortbus did receive a rating but the Restricted certificate passed down twice by the Kmrb effectively banned the film from release. This is because Restricted films can only be screened in Restricted theatres - none of which exist in Korea.

The 'art' loophole

The only way around this is to screen the films in festivals after being given 'art film' approval from a government-run film organisation such as the Korean Film Council (Kofic). This, of course, limits drastically the release, although plenty of enthusiastic Mitchell/Hedwig fans flocked to see Shortbus at the Korean festivals that screened the film in the interim.

Mitchell also visited Korea twice, once to support the opening of the Hedwig musical in 2006, and again in 2007 for a retrospective of his films which was held at the Sang Sang cinema run by KT&G (Korea Tobacco & Ginseng) where Shortbus was also screened. But Sponge never made any money from the festival screenings.

'When you're doing films, you know sometimes (which) one will make a fortune, and then there are others when, if we're not talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars, you buy them because they're simply a just cause. That's important to our company,' explains Cho. 'I knew if we took Shortbus, we would be able to show it at the Pusan film festival and the European film festival at the Megabox, and said we would send it to any festival in Korea that wanted to screen it.'

But without a theatrical release, even ancillary rights are hard to sell in Korea.

'So we talked with Fortissimo and half-jokingly - although it's actually in the contract now - said that we would take the film, but that the period for distribution rights should be seven years starting from the day the film got a rating,' says Cho.

Knowing in advance that the film's no-holds-barred sex scenes would provoke controversy, director Mitchell stipulated with Fortissimo that no cuts would be allowed on any of the prints shown around the world. Fortissimo knew that Asia would pose a problem, so Mitchell created a blurred (or 'mosaic') but nevertheless uncut version for the region.

'We pre-sold Shortbus on script to Asmik Ace for Japan,' says Wouter Barendrecht, co-chairman of Fortissimo Films. 'It was hot because his previous film, Hedwig And The Angry Inch, was a very big hit there. They knew there would be nudity but John worked with Asmik Ace with mosaic and pixelation. That was the version we used around Asia.'

Shortbus grossed around $500,000 in Japan in August 2007.

This was also the version that was twice knocked down by the KMRB. But Sponge was able to screen what it calls the 'no-mo' (no mosaic) version at its festival screenings and the Sang Sang retrospective.

Fortissimo also used the Asian version for its own limited release of the film in Hong Kong. It opened in select theatres, such as the Hong Kong Arts Centre, and received a Category III rating instead of being cut or banned.

'Hong Kong has relics of an old British law that says you can show nudity but not in 'the excited stage',' Barendrecht explains. 'Festive Films took it for Singapore, but it got banned for 'promoting alternative lifestyles', and Mongkol took it for Thailand, but we didn't even try for other territories in Asia.'

Smoother ride outside Asia

Elsewhere, however, the film saw hot bidding and fewer problems. 'We were actually expecting much more brouhaha than we got,' says Barendrecht. Shortbus almost got banned in Australia but the film got through on a 51:49 vote. In Russia, it was passed but the mayor ordered it out of St Petersburg so I think John showed it on DVD in someone's living room. But almost everywhere else, arthouse fans are used to sexually explicit images and so there was lots of bidding.'

After twice submitting the blurred Asian version for a rating, Sponge took legal action against the KMRB. The courts ruled three times in favour of Sponge despite the KMRB's appeals. The supreme court ultimately stated the Restricted classification was too ambiguous, and that it was not up to the KMRB to interpret and apply in any case.

Carlos Reygadas' Battle In Heaven won a similar court case in Korea last summer, while other films that have previously fallen foul of the Restricted rating include Tsai Ming-liang's The Wayward Cloud, Park Jin-pyo's Too Young To Die and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. They were either cut, or problematic shots and scenes were blurred to eventually move past the rating.

Attracting viewers

Having won a Teenager Restricted rating on February 18, Sponge is set to release Shortbus on 49 screens in Korea. These include screens in the major multiplex chains of CJ CGV, Megabox and Primus, as well as in two of Sponge's arthouse cinemas, and the notable Daehan, Cine City and Sang Sang cinemas.

Cho, who also runs the string of Spongehouse cinemas which he visits regularly, describes the typical Shortbus viewer as close to the typical Spongehouse fan: 'A woman in their 20s or 30s, who liked Hedwig; a professional who has a college education or higher, likes to think of themselves as different from the crowd, enjoys culture, and sees films by themselves a lot.'

On the other hand, with a wider-than-usual release for an arthouse film, he is also aware that more than the regular Spongehouse-type fans will have to show up at the box office.

'The people who came to see the film at festivals were film-lovers. Now we need to get general audiences in. Ajumas and ajushis ('aunties' and 'uncles') are the core audience for sexy films these days. They're the ones who made Lust, Caution a hit here (garnering 1.9 million admissions). Because it was an award-winning film, they could justify going to see it,' says Cho. 'Shortbus was also at Cannes and critically acclaimed, but it's not exactly the kind of thing they think of as 'love' - male threesomes, group sex... '

'When we first got the Teenager rating, I expected to take 20 to 30 screens, but with the controversy came a wider release of 49,' he says. Cho is predicting Shortbus will perform as well as other releases of a similar size. 'Tokyo! and Sicko opened on about 50 screens each, too, and they took about 50,000 admissions. They were still in the red, but that's the minimum of what we are hoping for in the case of Shortbus, too.'

Ryu Jeong-sue, director of the management innovation department at Kmrb, says: 'Since the supreme court ruling, the national assembly has been working on passing a proposal for revision of the law which will state in more detail what needs to be restricted - while keeping the status quo.'

The proposal stipulates the Restricted rating would apply to 'films that need a certain restriction from screening etc because of the excessive depiction of sex, violence, anti-social behaviour, etc.'

Lawyers, legislators, filmmakers and other pundits have already criticised the proposal, saying not only that the revision holds the same applicatory problems as the original, but also that the Restricted rating itself is antiquated and goes against freedom of expression.

For his part, Mitchell recently sent an open letter to Korea, thanking audiences and Sponge for its support as well as the supreme court for reviewing Shortbus and 'understanding that the film is not a primitive attempt to arouse an audience in a shallow fashion'. The letter went on to say: '[Shortbus] poses the question we all have to ask ourselves, 'Are we to be alone or are we not'' And by 'alone' I mean not just emotionally and sexually, but also artistically and politically.'

Barendrecht also voiced his support for 'what has happened in Korea. Not just for this film but for any kind of films that are politically sensitive or sexually explicit or in whatever way non-mainstream, provocative or alternative.'