Subtitles, anyone?If you want to see Korean movies, leave Korea and go to an international film festival somewhere like Cannes or Berlin. This is the sad reality for expatriates here whose Korean comprehension skills are limited. Recently, domestic movies have been trouncing Hollywood at local box offices: "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" has pulled in some 4 million viewers, while "Chingu" ("Friend") attracted more than 8 million.
As the local movie industry surges, what's in it for language-challenged expats? Not much - while they wait for late releases of Western movies, they're resigned to being unable to understand local movies. Though it's rare for a theater to screen a Korean movie with subtitles, it is done. Through this Friday, in fact, four films that flopped commercially but were liked by critics will be shown with subtitles at a downtown gallery. Meanwhile, the Korea National Tourist Office shows films with English subtitles, but draws few viewers.
If you are left wondering what all the fuss is about on the recent rise in Korean cinema, you are in luck - the Korea National Tourism Organization will show a different Korean movie with English subtitles every month for the next two years. The movies will be shown in the tourist organization's auditorium. Best of all, they're are free.
Kicking things off in January is the 2000 hit comedy, "The Foul King," starring Song Gang-ho and Jang Jin-young. It is the story of Dong-ho (Song), a timid bank clerk, who gains self-confidence by becoming a professional wrestler, eventually becoming known as the king of dirty tricks, drawing big cheers from his rasslin' fans. Although the film is a comedy about the garish, faux-violent world of a pseudo-sport, "The Foul King" is surprisingly subtle and well-written, with strong characterization.
The movie's director, Kim Jee-woon, came to the public's attention in 1998 through his first film, another comedy, "The Quiet Family," which was shown at festivals in Hong Kong, Toronto and Vancouver.
The project is supported by the Korean Movie Commission. The tourism organization has another 11 movies lined up for this year, and 10 more for 2003. The full schedule will be on its Web site (www.knto.or.kr) at the end of the month.
"The objective is clear," said Lee Kyung-hee, a spokeswoman at the downtown headquarters of the tourist agency. "Among foreign residents, Korean culture is not well known." She said the attraction of "The Foul King" is the theme itself, which is about the profound rebirth of the main character through the weird world of wrestling. She recalled she could not stop laughing when Dong-ho's boss puts his meek clerk into an inescapable headlock, and she attributes the movie's success to the performance of Song Gang-ho.
But Ms. Lee lamented that only a limited number of Korean films have been made available to non-Korean audiences. "Local producers make so many films, but so few have subtitles," she said. "So sometimes we've had to keep showing the same movie over consecutive months, and attendance was disappointing."
Though the tourism organization's screening room can accommodate 158 people, attendance last year was indeed low. "Lately we've been advertising more," she said. Last week, her office promoted the program to some foreign residents' clubs, such as the Seoul International Women's Association, the Foreigner Community Service and the Royal Asiatic Society.
Ms. Lee said the subtitles for the movies shown at the center are clear and well-done, though certain nuances and ideas in Korean cannot be conveyed perfectly. Movies are shown at the center every Tuesday at 4 p.m., except for the fourth week of the month, when the films are shown on Saturdays at 2 p.m. The center is in the basement of the Korea National Tourism Organization building in Jong-gak, downtown Seoul. From the Jong-gak subway station, line No. 1, take exit No. 5. For more information, call 02-729-9499.
A taste of the peninsula on a small platter
The driving force behind the recent success of the Korean movie industry has been gangster comedies, whose blend of violence and slapstick appeals to mainstream audiences.
Any movie without the requisite thugs and guns has been essentially passed over with little notice, even if liked by critics. A few movies that were eschewed by big theaters for their lack of commercial viability were "Waikiki Brothers," "Ray-bang," "Nabi" ("The Butterfly") and "Goyangireul Butakhae" ("Take Care of My Cat"). Grosses taken in by these low-budget movies pale beside the enormous sales of the blockbusters. "Waikiki Brothers," still at one theater, has sold about 120,000 tickets, "Take Care of My Cat" 50,000 and "The Butterfly" and "Ray-bang" some 10,000 each.
Though passed over by moviegoers in their homeland, the four films have attracted attention abroad. "Cat," directed by Jung Jae-eun, was invited to festivals in Berlin and Locarno, Switzerland. Kim Ho-jeong won the Best Actress award at Locarno for her role in the "The Butterfly."
A group of local cinephiles decided to breathe new life into the four movies by showing them together at a couple of events, called WaRaNaGo, which is derived from the films' initial syllables. The first event was held in December at the Hypertheque Nada theater in Daehangno, northern Seoul. The show was a success, with most of the seats sold out. The downtown art gallery Artsonje Center took the baton Jan. 5, and added English subtitles to the films last week. "We want to provide opportunities for expats who love Korean culture," said an organizer, Kim Son-won.
"Waikiki Brothers" is a story about the wide chasm between dreams and reality. A once-hot local rock band flounders, and its members see their dreams crash. The director Yim Sun-rye essentially asks, "Are you really happy with what you are doing now?" A movie critic, Shim Young-seop, told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition, "You can see how much Yim feels attached to the world. Though the characters are deceived by reality, they cannot hate the world; they still love it."
"Ray-bang" has a similar dream-big premise. Three taxi drivers with humdrum lives hatch a plan to make their worlds exciting. The scheme falls flat, though, and the men end up in deeper trouble.
"Take Care of My Cat" is more a woman-centered tale. Four young women struggle to express themselves in a repressive society.
"The Butterfly," directed by Moon Seung-wook, is the oddest of the four. The characters are weighed down by a virus that helps them forget bad memories. The award-winning actress Kim plays a nonchalant guide who leads outsiders to places where they can contract the virus.
The Artsonje Center in Jongno charges 7,000 won ($5) per film, or 20,000 won to see all four in one day. Reach the center by taking the No. 3 (orange) subway line to Anguk station. There, take exit No. 1 and walk about 300 meters toward Jeongdok Library. For more information, call 02-733-8949 (English available).
by Chun Su-jin