A love of Korean cinema crosses language barriersThe film “Silmido” sold 10 million tickets as of this week, a first in the history of Korean cinema. The film also marked another first: It was released with subtitles.
Until “Silmido” came out late last year, the only way for expatriates in Korea to fully enjoy a Korean film was to wait for the movie to come out on DVD, which usually has subtitles, a few months after the theatrical release. With “Silmido” and, most recently, “Taegukgi,” the Korean film industry is starting to reach out to a new audience.
“Silmido” opened with English subtitles at Cine Core, a theater in Jongno, central Seoul. From Dec. 24 to Jan. 11, only 152 expatriates bought tickets. After Jan. 11, Cine Core stopped showing the film with subtitles.
Shortly after it stopped showing the subtitled version, however, the theater fielded a number of requests from interested foreigners, according to Hank Kim, who runs Seoul Selection, an expat-friendly shop that has Korean films, music and books.
Among those interested was the U.S. Army, which inquired about a group screening of the film, which is about a special combat squad that was trained to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.
“There’s a growing number of expatriates who enjoy Korean films, but local movie theaters and distributors are not quite meeting the need,” Mr. Kim said. He has worked with Rhimm Sang-bek, owner of Cine Core, to show more Korean films with subtitles.
Cine Core was the only theater willing to include subtitles with “Silmido.” Most theaters don’t run subtitles because Korean viewers find them a distraction.
“Most movie distributors are not ready to cooperate when I ask for the subtitled copy, although by now it’s almost a must for every Korean film to have English subtitles for overseas sales or festivals,” Mr. Rhimm said. Putting in English subtitles is usually a part of the post-production process, which makes it difficult to complete the version in time for the theatrical release.
However, it was a different story with “Taegukgi,” a much-anticipated film by Kang Je-kyu, who made “Shiri” (1998). The studio behind “Taegukgi” had foreign audiences in mind from the beginning, which made it easier for Mr. Kim and Mr. Rhimm to get a subtitled version screened.
“Taegukgi” is more widely available to foreign viewers. Besides Cine Core, it also opened with subtitles at CGV Myeongdong in central Seoul and ZOOOOZ in southern Seoul. Cine Core showed a subtitled “Silmido” only once on weekend days, but “Taegukgi” has daily screenings until Wednesday.
Since opening Feb. 5, “Taegukgi” has attracted more than 5 million viewers, including about 400 expatriates.
Cine Core eased the ticketing process for foreigners by having a phone number that English speakers could call.
Jinna Kam of Cine Core has received inquiries from foreigners around the world. One interested foreigner is Hong Kong star Jackie Chan, who is coming to Korea to watch the film tomorrow.
This week, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism decided to support Mr. Kim’s efforts by giving him 23 million won ($20,000) to arrange for greater distribution of subtitled films to theaters and for translation projects.
Fans of all nationalities
Foreign fans of Korean films can only be happy about the recent developments. Valerie Soubeyran, wife of a French businessman in Seoul, is a diehard Korean movie fan who hosts a Korean movie screening on DVD every Wednesday morning at her home in southern Seoul.
Her love of Korean films started when she came to Korea in 2001 and was searching for ways to understand the society, after finding the language was too difficult to master. “I also felt left out when all my Korean friends talked about Korean films that I simply did not have access to,” Ms. Soubeyran said.
One day, she went to a downtown theater by herself and saw a Korean film, “Over the Rainbow,” though she knew that there would not be any English subtitles.
“I did not understand a single word, but strangely enough, I enjoyed the movie quite a lot,” Ms. Soubeyran said. “I could somehow figure out what was happening in the film and was impressed by the actors’ fine performances.”
From then on, Ms. Soubeyran often spent a night out watching a Korean film, sometimes with Korean friends who whispered translations during the movie.
Seeing that she wasn’t alone in needing subtitles, she started her Wednesday morning Korean DVD screenings so that her Japanese and French expat friends could attend. “It would be great if French subtitles come along, too, but that would not be likely to happen so quickly,” she said, with a smile and a shrug.
For her trip home to Paris next week, Ms. Soubeyran is taking more than 30 DVDs of Korean films to share with her family and friends. Among her collection, Ms. Soubeyran chose films by Kim Ki-duk. She is also taking home movies that have her favorite actors, Choi Min-sik and Han Suk-gyu.
Ms. Soubeyran won’t be neglecting her fellow fans, however: Her best friend, Christine Valade, will take over the Wednesday screening while she is gone.
The ideal job for a cinephile
Ms. Soubeyran is not alone in her devotion. Darcy Paquet, from Massachusetts, decided to stay in Korea because of his love of Korean films.
When he first came to Seoul in 1999, Korean film was experiencing a renaissance, with “Shiri” and “JSA” (1999). While he was teaching English at a university, he was offered a part-time job at the Korean Film Commission as a proofreader.
“The offer was originally made to my coworker, who wasn’t available at the moment,” Mr. Paquet said. “She knew that I liked movies and happened to ask me instead. I was lucky.”
From then on, Mr. Paquet had a chance to see Korean films both old and new, which led him to build a Web site, www.koreanfilm.org. “Especially after watching Hur Jin-ho’s ‘Christmas in August,’ which got me really excited, I felt the urge to share the joy with those who don’t know about Korean films,” Mr. Paquet said.
Now his Web site serves a resource for Korean cinema fans around the world. Mr. Paquet has more than 4,000 members to whom he sends newsletters on a regular basis.
Last year, Mr. Paquet missed only four Korean films out of more than 60. He also takes part in writing English subtitles; his latest project was “Silmido.”
A growing trend
More releases like “Silmido” would be welcomed by foreigners here. Hank Kim, of Seoul Selection, has held DVD screenings of subtitled Korean films but few expatriates attend. “I found out that expats want to see more first-run films rather than DVDs that are months old,” he said.
Mr. Kim sees more progress coming. With help from Mr. Rhimm at Cine Core, Mr. Kim will show “Samaria,” a film by Kim Ki-duk that won him the best director award at the Berlin film festival, with subtitles in March.
Also, Myung Film, a film production company, announced this week that it’s opening its latest film, “Desire,” with English subtitles.
“In the long run, expatriates in Korea could give local filmmakers a chance to see how their films are going to be accepted in the international market,” Mr. Kim said.
Jeon Yong-taek, a movie director, said, adding English subtitles isn’t difficult. He helped put together a retrospective of 50 years of Korean cinema last month at the Hollywood Theater in Jongno. Mr. Jeon made sure all 54 films had English subtitles, which made it a big hit with the expat community.
“If production companies and distributors put in just a little more effort, it may be a bit troublesome at first but would do more good than harm,” he said.
Where to watch ‘Taegukgi’ with subtitles
“Taegukgi” is currently showing with English subtitles at three theaters in Seoul.
Cine Core in Jongno, central Seoul, can be reached by taking subway line No. 1 to Jongno 3-ga Station, exit No. 15. For ticketing and more information in English, call Jinna Kam at (02) 2285-2096. (Until Wed.)
CGV Myeongdong in central Seoul is best reached by taking subway line No. 2 to Euljiro 1-ga Station, exit No. 6. For more information, call (02) 1544-1122. (Until Wed.)
To reach ZOOOOZ theater in southern Seoul, take subway line No. 2 to Gangnam Station and use exit No. 7. For more information, call (02) 566-6637. (Until Sun.)
by Chun Su-jin