Seoul (AsiaNews) - "Where are you going?" is the opening and final line in a controversial movie that opens today in South Korea. Echoing Peter's words to Jesus, the picture is titled Quo Vadis, "a detailed exposé of the shame of South Korea's corrupt churches," said its maker, successful director Kim Jae-hwan, son of a Protestant clergyman.
Currently, South Korea is home to some 78,000 Christian churches: 80 per cent owned by Protestant and Pentecostal groups that are outside the Christian mainstream.
At least a hundred of them are mega-churches, a big thing in North and South America, gaining ground in Asia. Such places of worship have large congregations with hundreds of thousands of faithful, totally independent of each other, and very charismatic leaders.
The film delves into the various power games and "parting gifts" in the millions to tens of millions of dollars in donations and investments that have become business as usual for many of these megachurches. The tax evasion and malfeasance scandal surrounding Yoido Full Gospel Church pastor David Yonggi Cho, and sex crime allegations, are cases in point.
Quo vadis' targets include the construction of the huge SaRang Community Church on prime real estate in Seoul's Seocho neighbourhood last year at a cost of 300 billion won (US$ 270 million).
For the movie director, "the growth process of South Korea's churches has exactly mirrored the growth of its established social interests."
"Back in the days of the Japanese occupation (1910-45), they were giving fighter planes to the Japanese army," Kim explained. "Under the military rule, they held prayer breakfasts for the illegitimate regime. And during the 2008 presidential elections, they campaigned for [then-candidate] Lee Myung-bak, who was one of their elders."
Underscoring the film's message are bits and pieces of news footage, interviews with experts, and videos of actual Sunday sermons by megachurch pastors.
Since it implicitly calls for church reform, this led to quite a few problems. The initial goal was to screen the movie in at least 100 cinemas; however, multiplexes balked at the prospect, concerned about a backlash from churches.
For the official premiere this month, Kim only managed to get 13 screens, most of them at art houses.
"The megachurches talk about 'God's judgment'," Kim explained, "but I think the real judgment is the situation right now. [. . .] there's a complete disconnect between inside the church and outside". He hopes they will see the error of their ways.
For Kim, his goal is to get more than 10,000 viewers, enough to raise the money he pledged to donate to the Jubilee & Land Justice Association, a Christian group working to help people struggling with debt.