[OUTLOOK]In Korea, the Last Picture Shows Play On

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[OUTLOOK]In Korea, the Last Picture Shows Play On

There's a tendency for Americans who settle in Korea to notice all the things that this country doesn't have that the United States does. Of course, a lot of these things aren't particularly necessary. I am speaking, for instance, of such wonderful ideas as pet cemeteries, low-calorie pizza, ant farms and the like.

I was ready to add drive-in movie theaters to that list until I found out that Korea does have one. I was surprised to find out, in fact, that Korea has 36 drive-ins. The odd part of this discovery for me is knowing that drive-ins in the United States, where I come from, have gone the way of Silly Putty and hula hoops. Fifty years ago, there were 5,000 drive-in theaters operating in the United States. There are now fewer than 500.

In Korea, however, the trend is moving in reverse; almost all the drive-ins here were built during the last five years. I experienced this phenomenon the other night when I accompanied some friends to a drive-in theater at Seoul's Mount Namsan and watched in amazement as the parking lot filled with almost 300 cars.

On our way to the theater, I told my Korean companions, none of whom had been to a drive-in before, that outdoor movies were invented by an American in1933. A Camden, New Jersey, man, I explained, hung a bedsheet between two trees in his back yard and then pointed an old Kodak movie projector at the makeshift screen.

Fifteen years later, 800 drive-in theaters decorated the U.S. countryside. Korea, then struggling with liberation's aftermath, had no use for the quaint flickering outdoor images.

As I reminisced to my friends, I realized how much I loved drive-ins - and missed them - certainly far more than pet cemeteries or low-cal pizza. I attended my first drive-in in Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1959, and saw "Return of the Fly," starring Vincent Price. Drive-ins were part of my youth in the 1960s, and stayed with me long after, sometimes in peculiar ways. In 1997, when I saw the movie "Twister," which features a harrowing scene of a tornado swallowing a drive-in, I did so in Las Vegas, New Mexico, at the Fort Union Drive-in.

So because U.S. drive-ins have just about disappeared - except in the nostalgia-soaked brains of people like me, I greatly anticipated my first visit to a Korean drive-in. To be sure, there are differences between Korean and American outdoor theaters. In the United States they had - and some still have - evocative names, such as Starlight and Moonbeam and Skyline.

The Seoul drive-in we patronized calls itself the Club OEO4, not wildly romantic, I must admit. There are no car speakers in Korean drive-ins; people tune in on their cars' FM radios. There are no ridges in the parking lots to aid viewing. There are no coming-attractions clips or pleas to visit the snack bar, all a part of what is left of the American drive-in scene. But there are similarities.

Mosquitoes, for example. I'll never understand why the most ravenous bugs seem drawn to B movies. There's also the matter of lousy concession stand food. In the States, it's chips covered with a nacho cheese that could substitute for wallpaper paste. In Korea, it's ojingeo, a dried squid that smells so bad it belongs in a landfill. Drive-in hotdogs over here and back home are both colored an unappealing bright red. Young couples in both places somehow manage to make their cars move without even turning on the engines. And small children in both Korea and the United States are forever wandering the drive-in parking lot in search of the bathroom.

U.S. drive-in theaters began to go downhill in the late 1970s and early '80s with the dawn of cable TV, VCRs and the Internet. Even indoor movie theaters struggle to stay alive in the States. Korea has no such problems, I learned.

The manager of Club OEO4 told me that Koreans pack drive-ins not only for their newfangledness but also for their privacy, a luxury not always available in apartments where two and three generations live together.

Many Koreans like drive-ins because they offer free baby-sitting and an opportunity to talk during a show without bothering anyone. Several Korean drive-ins maintain Web sites and most of the theaters are open year-round.

The Club OEO4 encourages regular visits by handing out coupons and providing special services, such as free entry on your birthday. The typical admission fee in Korea is 15,000 won ($11.50) per carload. For years U.S. drive-ins charged by the head, which often led teenagers (including this one) to squeeze into a car's trunk with his pals in hopes of slipping past the ticket-taker.

If you're lucky enough to find a drive-in open in the States, when you leave the theater you're invariably greeted at the gate by iron spikes on the ground and a warning that typically reads "Entering Exit Will Cause Tire Damage." When you leave a drive-in in Korea, your departure is marked by a gracious bow.

I'm delighted that Korea has a thriving drive-in movie industry. Next thing you know this country will be selling ant farms.


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The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by Toby Smith

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