“Sex is one of the all-time best selling topics for popular cinema. They may largely be referred to as melodrama, and generally called erotic movies. This genre was the most produced type of film in Korea in the 1980s.”
“It may not be appropriate to label the erotic films of the 1980s as soft pornography but when regarding, not the level of expression, but how they were accepted, their functions, and their nature, they were not altogether different from pornography”
「Korean Film Studies 1980~1989」, Korean Film Archive
1980s Erotic Films
Chun Doohwan, who grasped power with the 12.12 Military Insurrection in 1979, takes over the government after the Coup d'etat of May 17 in 1980. In the same year, he also leads the bloody suppression of the 5.18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising and becomes president in September.
The 5th Republic established by Chun Doohwan needed the people to forget the process of its foundation. In 1981, an event called “Gukpung 81” is held in Yeouido for 5 days including banquets and entertainment day and night. In 1982, the pro baseball league was launched which drew Koreans in front of the TV set to cheer for their favorite team. In addition, after the 37-year-long curfew was lifted, prostitution became prevalent nationwide. The movie “Ae-ma Woman” was made in 1982. There are stories that the ticket box window at a theater was shattered because of the large crowd of people flocking in to see the movie.
The 5th Republic, under its 3S policy, also promoted the development of the broadcasting industry and was particularly generous about stripping scenes when censoring movies. Kiss and sex scenes that took up most of the running time of erotic movies helped cut production costs and attracted long lines of moviegoers to the cinema. In short, going erotic was profitable. The hostess melodramas of the 1970s gave way to eroticism, which stayed on top for a decade.
Erotic movies were both produced and viewed the most in the 1980s. According to box office records of the time, the second biggest hit movie of the 1980s is Eoh Wu-dong, followed by Prostitution at 3rd place, Ae-ma Woman at 6th, and Between the Knees at 9th.
Aema Woman (Jeong In-yeob, 1982)
This film is regarded as a legend of Korean erotic film. Today's viewers may be disappointed because it is not as obscene as they expect. Actually, there are hardly any sex scenes. Most scenes are imaginary or the heroine is touching and feeling herself. Though it is more active than the heroines of 1970s hostess movies, the plot is usually banal. The title Aema Woman suggests a woman in love with horses, “Aema” meaning “love horse” when using Chinese characters. But Lee Aema is only the name of the heroine and the name has nothing to do with horses. The “ma” in the title is not the character for “horse.”
In spite of this, after the film's release, eroticism dominates the Korean film industry. The story and scenes were at the time erotic enough to attract moviegoers. After starring in this movie, Ahn So-young and Aema Woman remain forever symbolic.
Prostitution (You Jin-sun, 1988)
When it comes to Prostitution produced in 1988, the level goes up much higher. It's about a high-class prostitute who is dignified, regards her job as a professional career, and lives a high-class life herself. But in the end, she defines herself as “someone who must not remember the past nor dream of the future, and someone forbidden to fall in love.” This line of the leading female role Yeonghui seems like a remark intentionally made for society to hear, but what the viewers are only interested in is the female body on the screen. This is, of course, because Prostitution was not a social drama, but soft pornography.” (Source: Korean Film Studies 1980~1997 /Korean Film Archive)
The film topped the box office ranking in 1988 and was also the 3rd biggest hit movie of the entire 1980s.
Mulberry (Lee Doo-yong , 1985)
Erotic films of the 1980s can be divided largely into 2 groups: those set in modern times, like the films mentioned above, and those set in traditional and historical settings.
The latter group of films is known to have higher artistic quality and level of completion. Some even made entries into international film festivals and won domestic approval for artistic value. Mulberry also won various awards including the Baeksang Arts Awards, Grand Bell Awards, and the Korean Association of Film Critics' Award.
Mulberry is set in the Japanese Colonial period but no social issues are dealt with in the movie. As the husband is away fighting for Korea's independence, the heroine can't resist her sexual desire and sleeps with other village men in various places, and these scenes are the core of the film.
Actors and Actresses
Ahn So-young made her debut with Tomorrow After Tomorrow in 1979, but only rises to stardom after appearing in Aema Woman in 1982. Her glamorous figure won her the role as the first Aema. Afterwards, Ahn stars in other erotic remakes including Fiery Wind and Doe, and the traditional erotic film Mountain Strawberries and reaches the peak of her career as an erotic actress. But worried of being stereotyped as a sex actress, she stars in director Im Kwon-taek's Ticket in 1986 and successfully makes a new start without having to expose body.
Though Ahn holds the title “legendary erotic actress,” she is also acknowledged for her acting. She is too good an actress to only be known as an erotic actress.
Seonu Il-ran makes her fabulous debut starring in Moutnain Strawberries 2 (1984) the sequel to Ahn So-young's Mountain Strawberries. The following year, in 1985, she appeared in 8 films. Seonu's filmography of the 1980s is mostly composed of adult movies including Will Rather Become a Ball of Fire, A Water Mill, A Bold Woman, and Rice Cake.
Like other top actresses of the time, Seonu Il-ran had a glamorous figure and nice long legs. Perhaps because of that, it wasn't easy to change her image and she retires after starring in a TV drama in the early 1990s.
Lee Dae-keun is probably the most well known erotic actor in Korea up to now. He made his debut in 1972 as an action star and starred in numerous action movies. But in the 1980s, after appearing in traditional erotic films like Mulberry (1985), Byun Kang-swoi (1986), and Byun Kang-swoi (Garujigi) (1988) he became more famous as a humorous character with a strong libido. Lee was not muscular, but rather embodied the bold figure of a strong country man. At the sound of someone yelling out, “Ma'am!” many Koreans are to this day reminded of Lee Dae-keun dressed in traditional servant's clothes.
The Curator's Choice
Mist Whispers Like Women (Chung Ji-young, 1982)
While talking about erotic movies of the 1980s, there is a film no one mentions but which is too good to miss, director Chung Ji-young's debut film Mist Whispers Like Women. It's an erotic thriller about murder with twisting storylines starring the charming actress Oh Su-mi, the beautiful Yun Yeong-sil, and muscular Sin Il-ryong. The movie does not have that many obscene scenes, but the few scenes are hot enough. And it's a very good thriller as well. I recommend this movie to those who like fun and hot thrillers.
Erotic movies that flourished during the 1980s gradually withdraw from theaters from 1990 and begin to be distributed through video tapes. This is when Madame Big Breasts' Love Affair (1996), which made actress Jin Do-hui into a star, and all kinds of parodies began to pour out. But this is another story which should be dealt with at another occasion.
Curator — Yoo Sungkwan, Korean Film Archive
Publisher — Yoo Sungkwan, Korean Film Archive
English translation — Free Film Communications