Old-Fashioned Korean Cinemas in the Early Oughts

I’ve posted here only irregularly for years, but for various reasons I’ve hung onto the site. I had actually reached the point where I was starting to wonder whether I shouldn’t just port everything over to a free blogging site online. However, as I write this, Twitter is being strangled to death by the decisions of a single nimrod, and it’s reminded me that I don’t really want to be dependent on some large corporation for the continued availability of what I’ve posted here… but if I’m going to keep this site, I should probably post more here than just reviews of books I’ve read, right?

Recently a discussion I was in briefly touched on different adaptations of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons dangereuses. (For the English-language adaptations, my favorite was Valmont, though I haven’t seen it or Dangerous Liaisons in years.) This reminded me of the Korean adaptation of that story, Untold Scandal (from 2003), which sent me down memory lane. You see, I actually watched that film in the cinema… in an old-fashioned cinema, that is, and that kind of brought on a flood of memories about how cinemas in Korea used to be before the explosion of cineplex-type cinemas here.

In some ways, if you’re a certain age, it was like how you remember cinemas being when you were a kid: they were dark, and some of them—the big ones—were built more like “movie theaters”—than cineplex cinemas are: auditorium seating in a kind of open-horseshoe arrangement before an enormous screen. When I first arrived in Korea, those cineplexes did already exist, but they hadn’t actually opened in every city yet. I was living in Iksan, and I remember young people telling me that if you really wanted to watch movies, you went to Daejeon or Jeonju where the “good cinemas” were. “Good,” I think, meant more comfortable, and with a wider range of selection. (One of my more vivid memories from first arriving in Korea was being taken to see first of the The Lord of the Rings films in a cineplex in Daejeon, maybe a month after arriving. The Elvish dialogue was subtitled only in Korean.1

Anyway, this trip down memory lane led me to compile a small list of memories about what those pre-cineplex theaters were like in Korea when I first got here. I don’t think I’ve written about it before, so I figured I’d do it now, trying to avoid the stuff that’s common to old cinemas everywhere as much as I can.

Squid and Beer. They used to always sell canned beer—just bad Korean lager, of course—and squid at the concession stands. Sometimes popcorn too, but the default was lager and squid. Occasionally the squid would sold cold, but from what I remember, it was often heated up, to make it easier to tear up and chew. I heard about some cinema that sold squid with chocolate on it (or in one case, according to a co-worker, peanut butter!), but while neither seems particularly unbelievable to me, I never saw those weirder squid snacks myself. 

One result of this was that full cinemas often kind of smelled like squid, too. You… got used to it, I guess. (I can imagine that for someone who experienced it as a child, it could bring back a cozy, happy feeling, though.)

I think I tried eating the squid once, but I didn’t care for it. A lot of people brought outside snacks, and it seemed like literally nobody cared. I was a bit astonished when, on a visit back to Canada, someone at a cinema asked to see inside my bag, to make sure I wasn’t bringing “outside food.” (I don’t think that’s done anymore, is it?) Certainly, at Korean cinemas, outside food is tolerated: the cineplexes don’t usually sell squid, but there’s often a small shop nearby that does, for the express purpose of smuggling it into movies. (The theaters don’t smell like squid as much these days, though. Probably just less of the stuff, and better ventilation.)

I’ll be honest, I didn’t miss popcorn so much. I did, however, miss chocolate. They never seemed to have chocolate for sale at the concession stand, just squid and drinks. Or that’s how I remember the places I went. 

Light and Sound. Like the old-style cinemas back home, the theaters were dark. None of those safety guide-lights designed to help people get out in an emergency. The absence of big, bright smartphone screens in everyone’s hands also helped keep it dark. Though I understand why safety is important, I find the guidelights distracting since they shine up, often into my eyes if I’m sitting near the aisle in a modern cinema. So, this was something I liked even if it was a bad idea. (And even if, as I hear, it’s not good for your eyes.)

People chit-chatted more, though, and in those days everyone’s phones were left on noisy mode; if people were texting, you would hear it as a series of bings and beeps or percussion noises or little ticks. Like everywhere else—on buses, on the street, in classrooms—phones also loudly chirped or beeped or played a few notes anytime a text message came in. Most people just seemed to assume leaving your phone on noisy mode was normal and acceptable. Maybe it was like this back home, too, but a lot of people also seemed to feel no hesitation to talk on their phones during the films, and not just to say, “I’m in a cinema, call you back later.” (And since this was when phones were still not very good, people did this loudly.)

All of this aggravated me more than other people, because I was not used to cell phones. Back in Canada, cell phones hadn’t been that common yet. (A few months before I moved here, a friend told me she had a cell phone, and I remember her reflexively feeling the need to explain that her brother worked for the phone company and so she got a deal on it. I think I knew three or four people who had them, and half of those had an explicit reason for having a cellphone.)

You also often heard crinkly plastic food wrappers, because, as I’ve mentioned, people were pretty much expected to bring outside food. Many people seemed not to realize it would bother others, and krinkled the plastic incessantly, sometimes for half an hour at a time. (You still saw this in the later cineplexes, but less.)

Seats & Ticketing. A few places didn’t keep track of how many seats were available in the cinema, especially this one big place in Jeonju. They’d sell out, but keep selling; when people came back out to complain that there were no empty seats, a few employees would go in the back and get out red plastic schools, which they’d cram into every available space: behind the back row, in the aisles, and so on. That usually happened on the release day of new big-name movies: I experienced it on a date—well, it was a kinda-sorta date—around the time that Untold Scandal was released. (That’s the Korean adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses that I mentioned earlier.) My date and I agreed that, no, we were not going to sit on short plastic stools with no backs for two hours, and got a refund—and we saw the movie a few hours later at a cineplex down the road—but most people stuck it out. 

Buying tickets as a visible non-Korean was sometimes an uphill battle. People would assume I wanted to see whatever Hollywood movie was playing, and just sell me the ticket for that. They’d literally ignore the movie title I said and just give me a ticket to the English language movie. At the place in Iksan, I discovered this because when I tried to go into the theater, there happened to be a guy who stopped me at the door and checked the ticket, and sent me to a different screening room… which turned out to be an English language movie that had started an hour earlier.  

After that, I ended up having to check the ticket every time, just to see if I’d been given what I’d asked for. When I explained in my imperfect Korean that no, I’d asked for a ticket to this movie, not that one, the ticket counter person would insist that the film was not in English, and I didn’t want to see it. Occasionally I’d just be refused a ticket… in which case, I’d buy a ticket for the Hollywood film and then just got to the other cinema, because most of the time nobody was actually checking tickets. 2 

The other thing I remember was that the old auditorium seating was… not always built for tall people. I mean that the seats in a few places, especially one of the cinemas in Iksan, had shockingly little leg room. Depending on the row—yes, really, it sometimes varied by the row of the seat—I literally had to put my legs out in the aisle as I couldn’t fit them in front of me. The seats were also a bit hard, like what I remember high school auditorium seats to be like. (I think that’s kind of true of old-fashioned cinema seating everywhere, though I’m not sure. They seemed harder than the seats at my beloved Cinema du Parc in Montreal, which was as old-fashioned cinema as I’d been in a while.)

I also remember people surprising me about where they chose to sit. In a mostly-empty cinema, North Americans tended to leave some space between themselves and strangers. Of course, you might be right beside a stranger in a full cinema, but in an empty place, it was the norm to sit away from others. In Korean cinemas—as in Korean cafes—strangers tended to want to sit up close, so much so that I often would end up getting up and moving away from them once the film started, because I preferred to have a little space and to hear them less well than if we were side by side. 

Anyway, I hope this doesn’t read as a litany of complaints and criticisms. It’s more a walk down an odd, rickety part of memory lane. Despite the challenges in getting tickets, or sometimes fitting into a seat, or the little annoyances, most of my experiences with cinemas here in those years was good. I managed to see a lot of Korean films without subtitles, while helped me improve my listening skills and learn certain things about Korean culture and society. Like most younger Koreans I knew at the time, I preferred the more modern and comfortable cineplexes, but I’m glad I experienced the Korean version of old movie theaters, too. 

(Oh, and the featured image for this post is from a film that features one of these older Korean cinemas, the musical Midnight Ballad for the Ghost Theater. Long-time readers will know that I have mentioned it before, here. Oddly, I never followed up, which is funny: despite not being music of a music theater person, I really enjoyed it. Part of that might be that it’s, er, more no-holds-barred than you might expect from a musical. If you have any tolerance for over-the-top ridiculousness that winks at you through a welter of curses and snarls, I highly recommend it.)

  1. I saw the second installment in a cinema in Bangkok, and the third in a tiny rural cinema in India, played off a pirated version with messed up English subtitles all the way through that made no sense but were hilarious.

  2. This experience was kind of par for the course with ticketing: I used to always ask for a back window seat on intercity buses—usually asking for the seat by number—because the buses were not properly ventilated and only the windows in the back opened. Often ticket sellers ignored my request, since they tended to just sell seat numbers in serial order. But since people treated assigned seats seriously, I learned to insist that I get the seat I’d asked for.

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