The experiment by Cinecore theater and Seoul Selection bookstore to regularly screen Korean films with English subtitles is turning out to be a success so far, feeding the hopes of expatriates that it may soon become an established practice.
It is also an indication that Korean films may be starting to play a role that Hollywood films have played for years: Not only entertaining audiences at home but also offering powerful glimpses of the nation's customs and values abroad.
"The best-selling DVD at Seoul Selection has been 'JSA' by far", says Hank Kim, owner of the bookstore that specializes in introducing Korean culture to expatriates. "I've sold over 300 so far, many of them to diplomats who wanted to watch the movie to understand the division of the Korean Peninsula from our perspective".
A scene from "Taegukgi
As Korean cinema has experienced a boom in recent years, an increasing number of foreigners have developed an interest in Korean films as a cultural window, a pursuit that was often limited to the DVD screen due to the language barrier.
It is an obstacle that is slowly disappearing, however, as film companies are catching on to the idea of globalizing their products early. Cinecore theater kicked off a program to screen "Silmido
" with English subtitles once a day on weekends and holidays from Dec. 24 to Jan. 11. It was then followed by "Once Upon a Time in High School" also with English subtitles.
Around 30 expatriates on average attended the screenings, the theater said, and the figure could have been higher as the showings were sold out, leaving both Koreans and foreigners who wanted to watch the movie unable to buy tickets.
Now for the Korean War epic "Taegukgi
" set to be released Feb. 6, the theater has decided to expand the program to every screening every day, beginning Feb 8. Other theaters are getting into the act as well. CGV Myeongdong, Megabox COEX and Zooooz Cinema in Gangnam have also announced plans to screen "Taegukgi
" with English subtitles.
There had been concerns that the theaters would lose more Korean viewers than gain foreign viewers if they initiated screenings with English subtitles, which may be seen as annoying to people who do not need them. Such concerns are unfounded, according to Kim, and there have been no complaints from Korean viewers so far.
"Koreans are used to seeing subtitles because of Hollywood films. They don't have the antipathy toward reading subtitles that many Americans in the United States are known to have", Kim says. "In fact, some Koreans may even appreciate the subtitles as a way to learn English".
The current trend is a far cry from the situation just a few years ago when English subtitles were not among the main concerns of film companies. They were often never created unless the movie was sold overseas. Even then, ones featured on some older Korean films were horrible to the point of being comical.
"Film companies would pay someone about 1 million won to finish the whole thing as a part-time job. It should be done by professionals with a lot more care and expertise", Kim says.
Screening Korean films with English subtitles may also serve as a preliminary test to gauge the possibility of venturing overseas. Kim points out the case of Dooly the Dinosaur as an instance when such an early response could have been useful.
Dooly the Dinosaur is often beaten by the father of his human friend, which was taken to be funny by Korean audiences. When the popular animation was exported to Germany, local audiences were appalled by the physical violence that Dooly the Dinosaur had to endure on a daily basis.
Bridging such a cultural gap is a role that films can play better than any other cultural product, according to Kim. "'JSA' was able to commercialize the DMZ
in a positive way. It offered deep insights about the Korean Peninsula according to our perspective. As Korean cinema continues to grow, we should take the initiative in forming cultural discourse about us and present it to the world".
By Kim Jin