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Emaciated director’s death prompts dialogue in South Korea

The recent starvation death of an aspiring South Korean filmmaker is prompting a vigorous public dialogue here over compensation for artists in the nation’s burgeoning movie industry.

Authorities have not connected the death of director Choi Ko-eun, 32, whose emaciated corpse was found last month in her tiny flat, with her profession.

Shortly before her body was discovered, she had posted a note on her neighbor’s door. “It’s shameful, but I haven’t eaten anything for days. Please knock on my door if you have some leftover cooked rice and kimchi to spare,” the note read.

Many on social networking sites are now asking how a talented artist could die of starvation in such an advanced nation. “Choi, who is just over 30, died lonely in a country where we believe everyone can at least eat,” movie critic Shim Yeong-seob tweeted.

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The underlying cause of Choi’s death, which one newspaper headline here termed “a societal homicide,” has raised questions among film industry professionals.

“Her death has brought up an important conversation topic for those who are involved in [the] movie industry,” said actress Eom Ji-won. “Much work needs to be done to guarantee the basic rights and living conditions, as well as improving the treatment of film professionals.”

Union officials say the death points to unfavorable working conditions in the film industry. “We cannot help but place the responsibility on policymakers along with an industry where creators are driven to death,” the Federation of Korean Movie Workers Union said in a brief statement.

Officials have called for higher guaranteed salaries that will help provide for artists — from actors and directors to writers and technical workers — even when they are out of work and between projects.

In 2009, the average film industry worker averaged less than $500 a month, an amount that union officials said could lead artists like Choi to desperate measures.

A promising director and screenwriter, Choi made her debut while still in film school. Her 12-minute short “Passionate Sonata” (2006) won a “Face in Shorts Award” at the fourth annual Asiana International Short Film Festival in Seoul, and that same year Choi was invited to various other film festivals.

But after her graduation in 2007, some of Choi’s projects fell through. Estranged from her family, Choi struggled financially. Authorities said that at the time of her death, she had not paid rent in months and that the utilities had been cut off to her efficiency apartment.

Police in suburban Seoul said Choi had suffered from hyperthyroidism and chronic pancreatitis, which result in fatigue and stomach pain. A lack of medical treatment hastened her death, authorities said.

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Choi is a news assistant in The Times’ Seoul bureau.


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