Thursday, April 22, 2010

Korean filmmaker explores the world of sex volunteers for disabled people

From JoongAng Daily in Korea. (Here's a feature about the background of the film.)

While director Cho Kyeong-duk (pictured) was studying in Japan in 2004, he came across a nonfiction book with a provocative title: “Sex Volunteer,” by Kaori Kawai. It was based on two years of interviews with physically disabled people in countries from Japan to the Netherlands, about their sex lives and the group of people who, as the title implies, volunteer to sleep with them.

Though it was translated into Korean five years ago and its salacious title made it a smash hit, it wasn’t taken seriously by most readers. “There was one Web site which introduced this book, but nobody took it seriously. All the comments were swearwords targeting the disabled,” Cho recalled in a recent interview.

Cho, however, was intrigued. By May 2005, the 36-year-old director was already collecting news clippings and other materials related to sex volunteers for his own film on the subject.

“It wasn’t easy [to interview the disabled]. I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. To me, their language sounded so foreign.” The topic added another layer of potential embarrassment. Cho decided he needed to take the time to befriend his subjects, so the director decided to work at centers for the disabled, helping them bathe, eat and go out. At last, Cho said he thought he was starting to understand.

“I met Cho Kyung-ho while I was doing volunteer work at one camp,” the director said. Cho Kyung-ho - no relation - played the role of Hwang Chun-kil in Cho’s film. A self-educated poet, Chun-kil confesses to a priest that he wants to feel the warmth of another human being before he dies.

“There are a couple of films which are about the disabled but they all hire A-list actors. I wanted to cast people who are close to the characters.”

The director met and talked to people from all walks of life: priests, volunteers, doctors, pimps and civic groups that help prostitutes. After two years or so of interviews, Cho’s first full-length film “Sex Volunteer” was complete. It’s in theaters nationwide today.

Using a fake documentary format, the 123-minute film tracks the story of three people - college student Ye-ri, cerebral palsy sufferer Chun-kil and a priest - who are brought up on prostitution charges. Ye-ri said she was not paid to have sex with Chun-kil nor was she his girlfriend, instead calling their relationship volunteer work.

As the film unfolds, a female reporter interviews groups of people like the ones Cho met, from a priest who hands out sex aids to the physically challenged to a man who secretly operates a group of sex volunteers online.

Asked to explain where the boundary between fiction and nonfiction falls in the film, Cho said, “I added two characters: the priest and Ye-ri’s mother [who helps prostitutes leave brothels]. Except for those two characters, the film is based on truth.”

Cho has “no idea” how many real sex volunteers there are in Korea. “I just talked to a few people, and they don’t represent the whole sex volunteer community,” he said.

Because of its sensational title, Cho said the film went through many ups and downs during production. “We once stopped all filming for about three months due to a lack of budget.

“I also realized how hard it is for the disabled to be transported from one place to another. We never started filming on time because we had two disabled actors” who use wheelchairs, he said.

Everyone told him his movie would flop, but Sex Volunteer has actually been invited to many international film festivals including the 2009 Montreal World Film Festival and the 2010 Singapore International Film Festival, Cho said. The film even won the Humanitarian and International Jury award at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival last year. The film was also certified as an art film by the Korean Film Council in the same year.

Still, the project has met with a mixed response among activists for the disabled here. Koo Ja-yoon, a former counselor at the Web site Pureun Ausung for the Disabled, said Cho’s film might spread the misconception that sex volunteers are common, which is not true.

Cho argues that his film is not just about sex volunteers but also about human rights.

“The title is a little strong. I know. But it was intentionally made that way to attract the attention of the public. The film deals with many different issues surrounding the rights of the disabled such as rights to be educated, to get married and to move around.

“I want this film to give us a chance to openly talk about rights of the disabled [including sexual rights].”