English Titles Give Korean Films a Certain Cachet

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English Titles Give Korean Films a Certain Cachet

English movie titles are popular with Korean audiences. But do Koreans really know what "Hollow Man" or "Perfect Storm" mean? Are audiences drawn to a film from the sounds of a title, without really knowing what it means?

Imagine showing a Korean film in the United States called "Choon Yang Jun" or "Swiri" without any explanation of what the titles meant. Would audiences be attracted by the sounds?

The trend of using English titles in Korea has even spread to domestic films. The biggest Korean-made box-office hit of the year was "Joint Security Area," the story of North and South Korean sentries getting too close for comfort.

There was also "Tell Me Something," the story of a serial killer, which was filmed in the moody style of "Seven," and "Happy End," the story of infidelity with tragic consequences. All three films have done well. What is behind this trend?

For starters, people from 16 to 25 - the majority of Korean moviegoers - are becoming increasingly familiar with English. There are several reasons for this, but the Internet and its ubiquitous use of English have made a great impact. Korea is one of the world's most wired-up nations. And because most URLs are in English, Koreans are more attuned to the language than ever.

In fact, the use of English acronyms is quite trendy. While many in the United States bemoan the use of acronyms and unconventional English on the Net, Koreans seem perfectly content with it. This love affair with acronyms can be seen in the press and the mass media, which refer to present and former presidents as DJ (Kim Dae-jung) or YS (Kim Young-sam). In light of this, the public is quite at home with a film called "Joint Security Area."

English titles for Korean films also give them a sophisticated air, a taste of "occidentalism," similar to what "orientalism" does for health products or spiritual healing in the West.

The fascinating part is the choice of words. They frequently don't mean much. For example, an average Korean moviegoer might find "Tell Me Something" intriguing, but for native English speakers, the title can hardly suggest a scary thriller about a serial killer. Another odd title is "Happy End." Shouldn't it be "Happy Ending"? Suppose the TV series "Knots Landing" had been called "Knots Land."

But few Koreans seem to mind. They may not understand what a title means, but who cares? A movie with stars like Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer is enough to draw audiences.

The other night at the movies, I tried to explain to a friend the meaning of the title "What Lies Beneath." Her first response was puzzlement. Then she checked under her seat.

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