Venice Film Festival Condemned in Korea for Honoring Kim Ki-Duk Despite Sexual Abuse Allegations  – The Hollywood Reporter

South Korean film organizations are heaping criticism on the Venice Film Festival in response to a decision to screen the final film of the late Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk despite the multiple sexual abuse allegations he was facing prior to his death.

Kim died from COVID-19-related complications in Latvia in 2020. He had lived his last years mostly abroad after a wave of sexual assault allegations against him during the height of Korea’s #MeToo movement tarnished his reputation at home. At the time of his death, the director was at work on what would be his final feature, an Estonia, Kyrgyzstan and Latvian project titled Call of God. The film was completed posthumously by Kim’s Estonia-based collaborator, filmmaker and producer Artur Veeber. The work will receive its world premiere in a coveted out-of-competition slot in Venice on Sept. 6. 

In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, the Federation of Korean Movie Workers’ Union was openly critical of Venice’s decision to elevate the late director’s work in this way. 

“Just because he is dead, it doesn’t mean that what happened will suddenly disappear,” says Lee Sang-gil, the union’s director. “Kim never apologized to his victims, and instead he denied his allegations through a series of lawsuits. For the victims, their time with Kim will always remain as an unforgettable scar in their career. None of the victims were able to recuperate after the incident and return to work on film sets.” 

On Aug. 26, Korea Womenlink, a Seoul-based advocacy organization that works to combat violence towards women, sent Venice festival organizers a letter of condemnation. 

“The late director Kim Ki-duk was imposed a fine for physically assaulting an actress while filming,” the statement read. “Though Kim clearly committed a terrible crime, he tried to track down an accuser and sued the victim for defamation instead of apologizing. But the Venice International Film Festival has decided to screen his movie to honor him despite this fact, exonerating him from his sexual violence.”

The Venice Film Festival’s director Alberto Barbera tells THR that he decided to include Kim’s Call of God in this year’s program in part because of the late director’s long history with the festival. 

Known for his depictions of the underbelly of Korean society, with sequences of extreme violence and graphically outré content, Kim’s work was celebrated by the West’s great film festivals but tended to perform poorly at the Korean box office. In 2004, he won both Berlin’s Silver Bear for best director for Samaritan Girl, a drama about teenage prostitutes; and Venice’s Silver Lion for best director for 3-Iron, a horror drama. He later won Venice’s Golden Lion for best film in 2012 with the psycho-sexual drama Pieta.

“I’d say it was a kind of fidelity to the director, a kind of mutual respect and trust between the filmmaker and the festival,” Barbera tells THR of Venice’s long association with the director. “When Kim Ki-duk’s Estonian friends contacted me a year ago saying that they were working on completing the film that Ki-duk couldn’t finish, because he died during production, I thought we couldn’t let this opportunity pass,” he added.

“Most people don’t want to talk badly of Kim anymore because he is dead,” says Seo Hye-jin, the former lawyer of an actress who claimed in 2017 that she was physically assaulted by the director and forced to engage in full contact, unscripted sex scenes during the production of his 2013 film Moebius. “It’s distressing for the victims. Police closed the investigation after his death, and criminal complaint about his sexual assault never got a chance to see the light. But he did receive a summary fine for stalking and other physical assault, and there were multiple pieces of evidence to support the victim’s claims.” 

Seo, who represented other female victims in high-profile #MeToo cases in Korea, including a sexual harassment case against Ko Un, a celebrated poet who was frequently cited as a Nobel Prize candidate in literature, says Kim’s victims continue to live “in a state of nightmare.”

During the prosecutor’s investigation, Kim admitted that there were physical assaults on the set of Moebius, including his repeated slapping of an actress in the face, but explained that it was part of his “acting instruction process.” About the victim’s claim that he had forced her to touch the penis of a male actor — a scene that was not part of the script — Kim denied the allegations by saying that he did not remember the situation. 

In 2018, Korean broadcaster MBC aired a bombshell investigative report on additional allegations of sexual abuse against Kim, based on the testimony of multiple female victims and witnesses from his sets, including two male collaborators who said that “horrifying incidents” were a commonplace on Kim productions. One actress, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as to protect her career, alleged that Kim and a male lead of Moebius, Cho Jae-hyeon, both raped her in a hotel room during the shoot. Other actresses alleged that Kim would make sexual relationships with him a precondition of receiving a role. 

Kim vocally denied the allegations and sued both his accusers and MBC for defamation. He lost the trial against MBC, appealed, and later lost again. The court said there was not enough evidence to judge that the claims made by the actors and film professionals in the program were false. 

Veeber, the Estonian director who finished Call of God, agreed by email to give an interview with THR ahead of Venice. But the filmmaker later did not respond to questions about his creative relationship with Kim and his response to the assault allegations against his former collaborator in Korea. 

Collectif 50/50, the French film collective that advocates for gender parity and equality in the European film industry, also did not respond to requests for comment. 

“It’s regrettable that Venice is inviting and commemorating Kim’s film without mentioning his deeds as a perpetrator of sexual assault” says Choi Eun-min, spokeswoman of Deun Deun Center, a Seoul-based organization that was founded during the Korean #Me Too movement and which focuses on preventing sexual assault on sets and supporting survivors. “The reason why #Me Too perpetrators are able to return and continue their work is because these organizers remain silent about their association with sexual violence and human rights violations and praise [the perpetrators’] films. This could be seen as an act of pardoning the perpetrators from their acts of violence.”

Barbera elaborated to THR on his rationale for including Kim’s final film.”We had to face the same situation, for example, two years ago, when we presented An Officer and a Spy from Roman Polanski in competition. I think that what I said then still stands,” he said. “We are not a tribunal. I’m not a judge who can make a decision about the personality of a man or a woman. I am a film critic. I’m here to judge the quality of the thing that is submitted to the festival. I think this separation between the man and the artist is inevitable. It’s part of the history of art. I’ve said before, we know that [Italian painter] Caravaggio was a murderer. But he made some of the most important masterpieces of 17th-century Italian painting. What should we do? Remove the paintings from the museums because Caravaggio was a murderer? I don’t think so… We are not here to judge the person or the man. We are here to judge the quality of the thing that he makes. Sometimes people that make good things do bad things.”

Lee, the director of Korea’s movie workers union, notes that the representation of women in Kim’s films was always a subject of controversy in the Korean film community. 

“As film professionals, we stand by artists’ freedom of expression,” he says. “If his imagery was simply an act of creative expression, that wouldn’t have been so much of a problem for many. But it’s appalling to think that such brutal scenes were a reflection of the actual atmosphere on his sets [to some extent].” 

Regardless, Lee would like to believe that Venice made its decision to invite Kim’s work without knowing the full legal circumstances surrounding the allegations against him. 

“He died without a conclusive legal ruling by the court,” he adds. “This is regrettable for all parties.” 

Scott Roxborough in Germany contributed to this report.

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