Canadian Rambler – 6/5/06


Colin looks at Korean Cinema Chains

With Colin Moore

K-Land Episode I: The Theatre

It’s half the feeling of just being somewhere new, nothing that’s easy to put into words…like trying to explain fear or heat exhaustion or the shiver down your spine the first time you saw Daniel-san swoop up in crane technique against hair-model and bad boy rival Johnny in the first “Karate Kid”. You either know or you don’t.

The South Korean movie experience: similar in all the ways that count. You pick, you pay, you watch. But the details give flavor, whether you like it or not. You’re a foreigner. Black, white, or mestizo, you’re a living reason for longer than average looks and inevitable comparisons to movie stars based on…not much at all. You’re balding? Hey, Bruce Willis! Long brown hair? Julia! Love the Pretty Woman. Pancake white with the occasional exclamatory “Hee hee!”? Morning Mr. Jackson. It’s all good though. Payback for decades of guffaw comparisons to Bruce Lee and Jackie.

The ticket counter: nothing terribly new, though I suggest running through the title a few times in your head if you’re giving it a go in Korean. A western film title isn’t likely to be translated into a Korean word, but it will be written in the Korean alphabet (hangul), and therefore sounded out accordingly, creating possible oral complications. No worries. If you can count from one to ten you’ll be fine. Match the number to the poster of the film you’re interested in seeing and you’re as good as in. Fingers also work wonders for communicating show times and numbers of tickets requested. Throw in a smile and tight lipped nod of satisfaction. But the whole process probably won’t even come to that. Service employees in most cities here will know more English than you’ll know Korean, so just stand there looking like a stunned house pet while they guide you through.

With the time lag for western releases, don’t be surprised to find films that have already made it to DVD back home. As an example, “Home Alone 2” is playing just around the corner. Not really. Little Macaulay is a long forgotten dynasty, though I did find several theatres playing “North Country”, an October 2005 release back home. But after settling here it makes no difference. With no basis of comparison, the Asian release date becomes the release date, and major world releases tend to open on par with the world beyond, “Mission Impossible III” being the latest. Now if they’d only get that Eric Roberts retrospective up and running (no, seriously).

A week ago I was trudging through Nampo-dong, a southern seaside checkerboard of shops and Korean eateries wrapped in an outdoor market. From the outside it’s a neon encrusted good time. From the inside it’s a pinball machine. And you the ball. After a walk about and coffee to think about cosmic stuff, I decide I’m in the mood for a movie. There’s a quota system in place for domestic releases in Korea, and it shows. Until recently, local cinemas were required to show Korean films 146 days of the year. The latest U.S.- Korean trade relations pact has roughly cut this in half, though more on this next week. Now back to Bruce Willis.

International action stars will always have a place to lie their heads below the 38th parallel (dying to know what “yippie kye-yay mofo” translates to? I’m on it). Willis’ “16 Blocks” was a film I considered going to in Toronto but passed on. Here, it has acquired added value: characters hurting each other in a language I can understand. The inner lobby is good and plain. Not an overpriced N.Y. Fries in sight. No uniformed cinema stormtroopers in headsets. No Klingon Bird of Prey strung from the rafters. No rafters actually, just a low lit duo-toned room equipped with someone to greet you and a place to sit. Which I prefer. Some of the modern lobbies here are set-up like airport gateways, with row after row of chairs. The idea of waiting to sit while you sit, is brilliant. Standing with arm loads of junk food is overrated, which can be different here as well. Pringles, chocolate, orange juice, a delicious selection of cold coffees, and dried squid, which seems it’d be great chew food during rising action, like a stress-ball with tentacles. I pass, ordering a small popcorn for about two bucks Canadian. Beats the seven dollar econo-tub, but it’s pre-popped. Come to think of it, I can’t remember even hearing popping, a sound I find soothing before a movie. So the big glass case is eye-candy for the mouth candy, the popcorn is warm, and butter is just a non-entity period. So what. As long as Mr. Squid is pre-dried, packaged, and not plucked out of the concession aquarium, I’m happy.

“16 Blocks”, or “Die Hard” for seniors. I have my ticket – six bucks. The snacks max out at three. All smiles from the ushers. Things are good. Nothing to do but sit and wait, which as you know, I can do here comfortably. As anywhere in the outside world, in a South Korean theatre lobby you’re examined but rarely spoken to. It has nothing to do with being inconsiderate, merely curiosity. I haven’t lived in a country yet where necks didn’t bend for one reason or another. Better for a person than an fire engine. An older Korean man bucks the trend and shuffles over towards me. He leaves his wife a bench away, but she’s fine. She has a peaceful look on her face that’s long since known what her husband is all about. After bungled hellos on both parts he points to a wall-sized “X-Men 3” stand-up and asks the meaning of its tagline, something to the effect of “Whose side will you be on?” His pronunciation is….good. Age aside, he’d probably get top marks in most of my classes. I do my best, using whatever mash of language I can to explain the concept of good and bad. Thank god for thumbs. Pointing them up or down still rings as true as ever. I think he gets it. If not, he was at least smiling when I left to see Bruce anyway. We both were. What is it with movies and happy endings?