Going to the Movies in Korea
by Darcy Paquet
A trip to the movies in Korea shares much in common with a trip to the movies in any other country; nonetheless, the details of the experience differ in interesting ways. This essay is meant to give readers a sense of what it feels like to go to a movie theater in Seoul.
A trip to the movies
The sensible moviegoer will usually devote some time to planning before arriving at the theater. In Korea, shows sell out very quickly. Saturday screenings at major theaters are often sold out out by early afternoon, and popular films will sell out on weeknights as well. In March 1999 I was a victim of bad planning when I arrived on a late Tuesday afternoon to see Shiri (which had been playing for three weeks) and found that all shows for all three screens it was playing on were sold out, straight through to 10pm. Planning becomes particularly important for the early-fall Chusok holiday and Lunar New Year, the equivalents of Memorial Day weekend in the U.S. for big crowds and a slew of new releases. At these times, anyone who hasn't made a reservation by phone or internet, or bought tickets well in advance will be out of luck. A few years ago there used to be old women who scalp tickets in the general vicinity of the theater, but this appears to be a dying practice.
Tickets in Korea are for the most part universally priced, so it costs no more to buy a ticket in a Seoul multiplex than it does at provincial theaters. General admission tickets rose to 7,000 won in early 2001, roughly $5.50 at the present (Dec '01) exchange rate. Special discounts are often given for early-morning shows, or to students and seniors. Foreigners buying tickets to Korean films will often receive a warning from ticket sellers ("This is a Korean movie! It's not in English!").
After you get your ticket, you can wait in a small lounge inside the theater where they sell candy, popcorn, drinks, and, of course, squid. Dried squid, while not quite what popcorn is to American viewers, is nonetheless the traditional food to eat at the movies. Although quite chewy, it tastes okay and isn't as noisy as popcorn. (A reader wrote to me objecting to this last statement, claiming that the olfactory assault of dried squid more than compensates for the lack of noise) While waiting you can also pick up some free brochures which preview current and upcoming films. The brochures are glossy and well-made; one of my students showed me quite an impressive bookful of brochures which he had been collecting for three years.
There is often only ten minutes between showings. Before going in to take your seat, it's important to find out where it will be. All seats are assigned, and small seating charts are posted by the doors so that you can find your way easily. As you file into the theater there will be advertisements playing quietly on the big screen. If you look around, you will notice that the crowd is overwhelmingly young (under 30) and mostly female. Before long they will screen a greeting from the theater, a passionate but oft-ignored exhortation to turn off cell phones and beepers, and then the previews begin. After three or four previews, the lights go off and the film starts.
Movies in Korea are subtitled, not dubbed (except for the occasional children's feature). The subtitles follow the old Chinese writing format; they are located on the right side of the screen and they go from top to bottom, right to left. This is convenient at film festivals and for the rare foreign-language film shipped from Hollywood distributors, because the English is put at the bottom of the screen while the Korean runs down the side.
With luck, the whole movie will be shown, however many distributors adopt the odious technique of editing films for length. A few months after I arrived in Korea I went to see Emma with a friend of mine. I had seen the movie previously in America, and was shocked to discover that for this screening, wide swaths of the movie had been clumsily cut out, including the resolution of a key subplot. When I asked why such an innocuous movie would be cut up so badly, my friends told me that by shortening the film, the theater can squeeze in an extra showing and make more money. Unfortunately these lost scenes are usually not restored for the subsequent release on video, either.
In the past, the projectionist would often cut off the credits about ten or fifteen seconds after the film ends, and then the ushers would hustle everyone out of the room. These days, however, most theaters play the credits right through to the end, to the relief of those few who like to get their money's worth from their ticket.
Theaters in Seoul
The following is a list of some interesting theaters in Seoul (with apologies to residents of Pusan and other cities). Click on the names of the theaters to get to their websites.
This theater, supposedly the biggest in Asia, opened its doors in Spring 2000 to huge crowds and much fanfare. Located in the huge underground COEX mall complex in southern Seoul, Megabox attracted a half million viewers in the first few months of its existence, which is believed to have set a new world's record. The theater features 16 screens and 4336 seats. Each year it hosts a weeklong European film festival. From 2001, several other theaters in the Megabox chain have opened in various cities around Korea. U.S. theater chain Loews Cineplex owns a 25% share of the company.
Seoul's first multiplex theater, which opened in 1998 on the 10th floor of TechnoMart, a discount center for electronic goods. The theater boasts 11 screens, comfortable seats, high-tech sound systems and a nice view of the Han River. Shows at this theater sell out very quickly. After the success of this first theater, many CGV chains have opened across the country, making it the biggest theater chain in Korea. CGV is jointly owned by Korean company CJ Entertainment and Australia's Village Roadshow.
The 8-screen Seoul Theater on Jongno was for many years the most popular venue for watching films in Seoul, before the arrival of multiplexes in 1998. Even today it remains a very popular theater, and it is common practice for filmmakers and stars to hang out at the cafe next to the theater on a film's opening day. The sidewalk outside the theater is the best place in the city to buy dried or buttered squid (if that's your fancy).
Dongsung Theater opened in 1995 near Daehangno, Seoul's trendy theater and cafe district. The theater is built entirely underground and also includes a small cafe and a store which sells videos. Although it originally specialized in arthouse films, in 2000 it decided to build a smaller theater named Hypertheque Nada to focus on non-mainstream titles, while the bigger theater screens mainstream films. Hypertheque Nada is located in Dongsung Hall, a short walk from Dongsung Cinematheque. It is a common venue for film festivals and special film series.
This theater, located not far from Kyobo Bookstore in central Seoul, is operated by director Lee Kwangmo's distribution company Baekdu-daegan. It is a lavish two-theater venue which specializes in arthouse films and also occasionally hosts film festivals. The theater is beginning to develop a reputation in Korea for drawing large numbers of viewers to films that would ordinarily not be distributed.
Located in Tongdaemun, one of the biggest market complexes in Asia, and a popular center for youth culture, particularly after 2:00am. This theater takes up the 10th floor of Kopyung Freya, a popular shopping center, and offers 10 screens (1800 seats) and a host of user-friendly services, including free choice of seats, large screens, optional 'couple seating,' and specially marked 'star seats' inscribed with the name of a famous Korean actor or actress. It is advertised as Korea's only 24-hour theater (although in truth they generally do not screen shows between 8-11am). After a disappointing opening in January 2000 during which they were unable to screen the most popular films, the theater seems to have recovered, and it is now drawing an increasing number of viewers.
Two theaters located off Chongno, a major downtown street. They are jointly owned, and occasionally host local film festivals together. Core Art Hall tends to specialize in arthouse films, while Cinecore is more mainstream. A section of the sidewalk in front of Cinecore features handprints of popular actors and actresses.
A one-screen theater which opened in 1998 in Samsung Plaza, the headquarters of Korea's third-biggest conglomerate. It is equipped with high-tech sound and comfortable seats. You can catch a glimpse of it in the movie Shiri.
Piccadilly Theater and Dansungsa
Located in downtown Seoul, Piccadilly is the theater seen in the 1998 film The Contact. Across the street is Dansungsa, the nation's oldest movie theater which has existed in some form since the 1910s (Korea's very first film was screened here). In 2001, work began to completely rebuild both theaters into expansive modern venues.