The other night, about 80 persons ran screaming out of a movie theater in Seoul at which "Fatal Attraction" was showing.
But it wasn't the suspense on the screen that horrified the movie fans. It was snakes in the theater.
An attempt to sabotage the showing of the Academy Award-winning film has developed into the latest in a series of emotional flare-ups between the United States and South Korea. As the first movie that a foreign company has imported here under a newly won right to distribute directly to theaters, the picture has become the target of what diplomats here call "a campaign of intimidation and violence."
Led by Korean producers-importers who have pocketed most of the profits from screenings of U.S. films to date, the campaign is taking its toll daily.
Raising a banner of an alleged need to protect Korean culture, the Korean middlemen have won support from directors, producers, film stars and even newspapers, which have refused advertising for the film. Two theaters in Pusan, one in Inchon and one in Kwangju, which had booked "Fatal Attraction," have backed down and are not screening it. And would-be patrons at eight theaters throughout the country that are showing it have been driven away in droves.
On Monday, one of the two theaters showing the film in Seoul said it will stop screenings on Thursday.
Patrons are "abused or taunted. People are afraid to go in," said Mike S. Pae, general manager of Universal International Pictures (Korea), importers of the film. Prospects for profits are "terrible," he added.
Protestors, led by Lee Tae Won, a major film distributor and president of the Korean Motion Picture Producers Assn., started staging sit-ins and rallies at the entrances of two Seoul theaters when the film opened during the Olympics. Ink was splattered on signs advertising the movie, and, on one occasion, demonstrators broke into a theater, painted the screen with graffiti, and lined up on stage, shouting slogans as the movie was being shown.
"Thugs," according to a diplomat here, who asked to have his identity kept secret, "attacked and beat up employees of one of the cinemas in Seoul and made threats of violence and arson" against owners of both Seoul theaters.
Then came the snakes.
Two days after the movie opened, eight nonpoisonous garden snakes were found in one Seoul theater. Two days after that, snakes were found in the women's restroom. At the other theater, snakes were let loose twice, the last time sending 80 patrons "running out of the theater in panic," Pae said.
That incident occurred during the last showing of the day, after demonstrators had gone home and about 480 persons had entered the theater. For most showings, the audience has not exceeded 40 persons, Pae said.
The protesters, he added, "are barbaric."
Police, who have detained some of the protesters but released all of them without filing charges, "have not been cooperative," Pae charged.
UIP, as it is known here, is a subsidiary of a London-based joint venture distribution firm set up by Paramount, Universal and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists. It holds exclusive rights to distribute outside the United States all movies made by the three film companies.
The imbroglio marks the fourth time that an American trade dispute has stirred up a nationalistic furor here. Exports of Korean photo albums to the United States and imports of American beef and cigarettes were the focal points of earlier outbursts.
Already, the furor has turned into a new diplomatic issue.
The U.S. Embassy here "has expressed strong concern to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Economic Planning Board and the Ministry of Culture and Information and notified the National Police" of the threats, the diplomat said.
Ambassador James R. Lilley, in an unannounced meeting Sept. 27, protested to Chung Han Mo, minister of culture and information, who has authority for implementing regulations concerning the movie industry. Lilley "stressed the need for police protection and for implementation of an accord" reached between the United States and South Korea after the U.S. motion picture industry submitted a complaint of unfair practices in 1985, the diplomat said.
Lilley, he added, told Chung that the American motion picture industry would find it impossible to "respond to Korean importers' grievances in an atmosphere of violence and intimidation."
Chung, the diplomat said, assured the ambassador he would "very strongly" urge the Korean producers-distributors not to resort to intimidation.
Except for the Economic Planning Board, the diplomat said, "everyone in the Korean government is unsympathetic."
Even before the trouble began, the U.S. Motion Picture Export Assn. on Sept. 15 filed a new complaint of unfair practices against South Korea, citing threats of the sabotage--including the snake ploy--as one of its charges.
So far, only 20th Century Fox has joined UIP in setting up a branch office here, but all of the major American studios are reported to be planning to follow the firm's lead in direct distribution--if UIP succeeds.
For years, the government here has been trying to build up the moribund Korean movie industry by channeling profits of imported--chiefly American--movies to Korean producers. Until two years ago, the Seoul government permitted the import of only 30 American films a year and required licensed importers to produce four Korean films for each import.
Last year, the import limit was lifted and importers-producers were required to make only one Korean film for each import. Imports of American films, as a result, spurted to 99 in 1987, but Korean importers continued to pocket most of the profits.
Instead of promoting Korean movies with their import profits, both Koreans and American agree, Korean producers churned out only low-budget "blood, gore and sex" potboilers. Profits, Pae charged, were invested in real estate, not movies.
"Producers lost interest in producing," agreed Cho Moon Jin, chairman of the Korea Motion Picture Directors Assn., who has directed 53 movies over the last 17 years. "It was easier and more profitable for them to import."
But, Cho added, with the help of profits from imports, which he estimated at about $400,000 for an average U.S. film, "at least it was possible to come up with a good Korean movie every once in awhile."
Now, with the freeing of imports and distribution, the Korean industry's very existence is threatened, he insisted.
At the same time, new opportunities to maximize profits have opened to American film makers. One industry source, who asked not to be identified by name, said U.S. importers could make as much as $2 million on a blockbuster film by cutting out the Korean middlemen, as compared to about the $350,000 they were able to charge when selling to Korean producer-importers.
Lee, Cho and others, however, have wrapped the dispute in a nationalistic flag. They insist they see a real threat to Korea's 5,000-year-old culture from American films swamping the country. The claim is echoed by cries of "Save Korean Culture!" from the demonstrators, who, both Pae and the diplomat charged, are being paid.
"Some American movies are good," said Chung Chi Young, another director, "but most are materialistic and commercially oriented. There is a danger of contaminating Korean culture. We have to stop this trend toward being influenced by American culture."
The cultural charge has received a sympathetic hearing in South Korea, where films from Japan, Korea's former colonial ruler, have been banned for 43 years to protect Korean culture.
Pae, however, branded the cultural claim as "ridiculous."
American movies have been coming into South Korea since the end of World War II in 1945, he said. Moreover, with Korean importers picking the films in search of maximum profits, mostly sex-and-violence American films have been imported, he said.
"That's why the image of American movies has become tarnished among the Korean people," Pae said.
UIP, he declared, intends to bring in top quality films. He cited plans to import "Moonstruck," starring Cher in her Academy Award-winning role. The next planned import, however, is "The Living Daylights," the first of a new series of James Bond films starring Timothy Dalton as the British secret agent, he said.
Pae said UIP wants to start showing the Bond film Jan. 1. But he added that the "Fatal Attraction" protest has clouded the outlook.
The only two points of agreement in the fight, so far, are that Koreans have developed a strong liking for American films--about 80% of movies shown here are U.S. films, Pae said--and that the Korean movie industry is sick.
Cho blamed years of heavy-handed government censorship for depriving the industry of creativity. He argued that Americans should wait a little longer to begin unfettered imports to give Korean movie-makers time to get on their feet. Only in the last year, after President Roh Tae Woo promised democratic reforms when he was chairman of the ruling party, has government scrutiny of scripts ended, the director said.
With last year's increase in imports and the prospects for still more American movies to come in, Cho claimed the number of Korean movies produced since 1985 has fallen "drastically." In fact, there has been no change.
Lee Tae Won's Motion Picture Producers Assn. reported that 80 Korean movies were produced in 1985 and 89 were made last year. But the association refused to answer any other question.
Cho said the directors association was planning to file an anti-monopoly suit against UIP, which, he claimed, controls "more than 50% of the movies Koreans would like to import from the United States."
Trying to compete freely with UIP, "with its massive financial strength," Cho added, "is like a child battling a gorilla."
Retorted the diplomat: "Whoever made an issue of monopoly in Korea?"
Cho charged that UIP is subsidizing the theater owners to keep showing "Fatal Attraction"--a charge to which Pae refused to respond directly.
Chung said he and other Korean directors did not intend to contribute to what he called "rising anti-American sentiments," which were fueled anew during the Seoul Olympics by a series of incidents involving American athletes and NBC's television coverage of the games. But he acknowledged that anti-American sentiment was helping the directors and the distributors in their cause.
"Fortunately, during the Olympics, the United States volunteered to play the role of the villain," Cho added. "So we have popular support."
A compromise by UIP to sell distribution rights to at least some of its films appeared to be one possible way out of the maze of charges and countercharges.
According to the diplomat, Minister of Culture Chung urged Ambassador Lilley to persuade UIP to make precisely that concession to the producers whose survival, the Cabinet official said, "is threatened by UIP's policy of direct distribution."
A beleaguered Pae, who keeps the shutters pulled down and the door locked at his office most of the time, acknowledged that he was thinking of recommending that course of action to UIP headquarters.
But, he added, "I am only willing to negotiate if they (the producers) stop the demonstrations."