SEOUL, South Korea — 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.