At first glance, going to the cinema in Korea is much the same as going in England. In fact (and luckily for me and other English speakers) English language films are shown in their original state, with Hangul subtitles at the bottom or side of the screen.
Look a little closer though, and you may be pleasantly surprised at what you encounter…
1) Being offered a ‘couple seat’
This will usually only happen if the cinema-going party consists of a boy and a girl, or even numbers of males and females. You are given the option to pay the equivalent of about £1 extra for larger, slightly comfier chairs without the ‘armrest bit’ that has long frustrated couples in UK cinemas and beyond by causing an uncomfortable barrier between them.
The ‘couple seat’ is congruous with the cutesy ‘couple’ theme that permeates Korean youth culture. Its common to see couples walking around with his ‘n’ hers t-shirts, matching glasses and even exactly the same hair style and colour. I interpret this as an expression of commitment, and a way of telling the world they are in love! It may seem cheesy at first, but is an undeniably romantic gesture that is quite norm for new, young and even older married Korean couples.
The cinema ‘couple seat’ is something you have to try at least once, and is a cute, cosy option if you are on a date. Of course, it can be very embarrassing to be offered this when accompanied by someone you really don’t want to snuggle up to, in which case, you simply politely decline, and opt for the chairs with armrests!
2) Snacking on dried seafood
British cinema fare is basically limited to popcorn, confectionery, ice cream and possibly nachos. You may be pleased to know, then, that Korean cinemas usually provide other options. One that springs to mind is that of dried squid.
As a vegetarian, I didn’t try the stuff myself, but was surrounded by those who were scoffing it, and by default also by the memorable and rather potent smell it exudes.
I’m told that it is chewy, salty and a perfect ‘movie snack’ that is more interesting that popcorn! It is available in a variety flavours ranging from ‘vegetable’ to ‘peanut butter’. To be enjoyed with most films, though maybe not The Beast… (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115109/)
3) Stopping off for a pre-film sing-along
Most Korean cinema buildings are more like small arcades. Its very common to see a mini-norebang, sticker booth, dance mat, or indeed in many cases a number of arcade games in the lobby area. These additions ensure the mass appeal of cinema to a very young, trendy / geeky audience, with an assurance that their trip here will be a fun one, regardless of how much they enjoy the film.
Waiting bored to buy tickets or for a film to begin is no longer an option when you can nip into a mini-norebang for a song or three, or challenge your friend to an arcade drum-battle.
This also means that the sole purpose of a trip to the cinema need not necessarily be to view a movie. I am guilty of, on more than one occasion, visiting Chuncheon’s local cinema ‘CGV’ to socialise with friends, print photo stickers, and inevitably end up buying delicious-smelling popcorn before returning home to eat it curled up in front of the TV!
Some faithful lovers of old-fashioned cinemas may find this new approach somewhat sacrilegious, but I would argue that it certainly keeps the public engaged in the act of cinema-going, and keeps cinema firmly in the here and now.
4) Staying right until the end
More often than not, Korean audiences will remain tight on their seats with their eyes locked to the screen until the very last end credit has completely vanished. When the screen is finally empty, applause usually follows.
Yes, this can seem arduous, especially to impatient audiences who are used to springing out of their seats the second that the credits start to roll. It is, however a sign of gratitude and respect, traits very inherent to Korean people. I embrace hailing every gaffer, best boy and wardrobe assistant without whom the masterpiece just viewed would not have been the same!
5) Having another option
The flip-side to having full accessibility to English-spoken films is that there is absolutely no chance of seeing a Korean movie with English subtitles in a cinema. This can be rather disappointing when you have a hankering to watch something on the big screen that is native to the country that you are living in.
The solution comes in the form of the DVD-bang‘s medium screen. DVD-bangs provide tiny private room spaces where you can watch a DVD of your choice, with subtitles of your choice at the time of your choice. They remove the formality and journey associated with cinema, taking on a more personal and private realm. Here, you can talk, laugh and eat loudly without being frowned upon.
Strangely, a new dimension is added to film-watching within the DVD-bang, with the vibrating chair. These increase and decrease in intensity depending on the volume of the film’s soundtrack, with the result of an experience somewhere between a massage chair and a ‘4-D’ Disney film / ride.
DVD-bangs can be enjoyed alone, as a couple or in a small group of friends. The quality of the screen is not always great and the magic of cinema is lacking, but I’ve found these to be perfect for watching action films. Moreover, it’s wonderful to have another option as a happy medium to cinema / staying in. If visiting Korea, watch Oldboy in one of these for an unforgettable experience.