Editor’s Note: Welcome to a new and what I hope will be a long series of Opinionator pieces! This one combines two of Electroshadow’s biggest passions…
Who doesn’t love travel? Seeing the world and experiencing new things is one of the greatest pleasures life has to offer. I’ve seen as much of our wonderful planet as time and money have allowed, and I’m still nowhere close to having that wanderlust satiated. We all have our respective things we look out for when we travel. Maybe it’s visiting the famous landmarks, or getting to know the locals, or trying out a recommended eatery. For me, no trip is complete if I don’t cross one little thing off my list: watching a movie in that country. You might be wondering, what’s the difference between watching a movie in Malaysia versus say, America? Most of the time, not a whole lot. To quote John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction”, “They got the same shit over there that they got here, it’s just… there’s a little different.” And little differences can say a lot about a people and their way of life.
Let’s start with South Korea. Seoul, to be exact. A population of over 10 million makes it the largest city proper in the developed world. With that many citizens crammed into one place, you’d think they’re all a bunch of irritable, highly-strung folk. Fortunately, Seoul boasts a highly-sophisticated arts scene, providing Seoulites a healthy outlet for their pent-up energies. Which includes a dynamic film industry that has produced strikingly original creative voices like directors Park Chan-Wook (“Oldboy”), Bong Joon-Ho (“The Host”) and Kim Jee-Woon (“I Saw The Devil”). Naturally, South Koreans are avid moviegoers as well. While their homegrown efforts are enough to sustain the Box Office, there’s plenty of appetite for Hollywood and World Cinema.
On our very first night in Seoul, I was raring to hit the multiplexes. My other half and I had already done a full day of sightseeing and sampling the local cuisine, so we figured what better way to cap it off than with an authentic Korean cinematic experience like… err, “Thor: The Dark World”? Okay, so we could’ve chosen a local movie, but apparently most Korean-language films do not come with English subtitles. Besides, I couldn’t pass up the chance to watch such a highly-anticipated release on the very day of release. So off we headed to Lotte Cinema in Lotte World, a massive indoor theme park and entertainment centre. I feel I must take a moment here to give special mention to the superb public transportation in Seoul. It is even better than Singapore’s, and that’s saying a lot. Their subway network covers almost every inch of the city, is squeaky clean, and everything is clearly signposted for both locals and foreigners. It made getting around a total breeze.
The first thing we noticed when we got to the cinema was the different queuing system. Instead of putting up velvet ropes to make patrons stand in line, they had a queue ticketing machine. Like the ones you get in banks and post offices. I took a number then took a seat, but didn’t have to wait very long for my turn. For some reason, I automatically assumed the Box Office guy couldn’t speak any English, so I pointed at a nearby “Thor” poster and made the number 2 with my fingers. Then pretended to wield an invisible Mjolnir, just in case he wasn’t clear. He looked at me like I was mildly retarded and politely asked, “What time, sir?” In hindsight I realise it’s only logical for them to hire English-literate staff in case of dumbass tourists like me.
A pair of tickets set me back 16,000 Won, which works out to almost 50 bucks here. Considering this was neither an IMAX nor 3D screening, that’s pretty pricey. But the overall standard of living in Seoul is expensive anyway, compared to Southeast Asia. I’m sure their salary scales match up so it shouldn’t be a problem for the average white collar urbanite there. Tickets display the movie’s runtime, a nice helpful little detail we should adopt.
Another interesting feature are these digital lightboxes on the walls that show you the seating layout of the screening halls. However, I didn’t manage to find out if they also gave updates on what seats had been purchased. The concession stand was too much of a distraction. Nom nom nom. I scanned through for any wacky offerings like Kimchi popcorn or street food like French Fry Corn-dogs and Ho-Tteok (cinnamon & brown sugar pancakes). Alas, it was the limited to the regular fare you get anywhere else in the world.
We proceeded straight to our hall and expected to be able to enter right away. But cleaning was still in progress so the usher directed us to a waiting lounge directly outside the hall. This was something of a first for me. Nothing terribly alien in concept, just a thoughtful amenity that our weary feet fully appreciated. Again, the wait wasn’t long and I put that down to the general efficiency of the Koreans. There’s an over-riding sense of purpose and urgency to the way they do things, big or small, and I admire that trait.
I thought I’d gotten the best seats in the house by choosing the very last row. It turned out to be a less than ideal spot, as the last three rows were situated under some kind of outcropping that lowered the ceiling above us by a huge margin. It made our area more stuffy than the rest of the hall and worse, it affected the acoustics. I tried to pay this no mind as the commercials came on. They proved to be disappointingly coherent and non-crazy, unlike Japanese ads. I did notice one amusing thing though: no matter what kind of product they’re advertising, Korean ads always feature the exact same girl. Oh wait. Maybe I just can’t tell them apart. No, that’s not racist. That’s the widespread use of cosmetic surgery for you, resulting in girls who all have that same hyper-generic prettiness.
I’m sure the rest of the audience there would disagree. Speaking of whom, I don’t know whether the film’s humour failed to connect or if it was down to a language barrier (jokes in subtitles can easily lose their meaning), but for the most part the people of Seoul were a pretty unresponsive bunch. My guess is, a little bit of both. The crowd did enjoy Loki though, which proves two things. One, everyone loves a good bad boy. And two, Tom Hiddleston’s awesomeness requires no translation.
To be honest, this particular cinema didn’t leave me very impressed. Perhaps we should’ve gone to another part of town, like Gangnam or Myeongdong, where the audio-visual quality and the halls would likely have been more upscale. Not that this branch was a dump, mind you. It was still very well-appointed, similar to the classy cinema lounges you get in Bangkok. I’ll save the story of that city for another instalment.
All in all though, we had a great time in this vibrant, happening city and the movie outing was just a cherry on the cake. To get a better gauge of the standard of cinemas, I would’ve checked out at least one other venue but our schedule simply didn’t permit. As I continue this series, I will be doing something akin to a scorecard, pitting the moviegoing experiences each city around the world has to offer against each other. For this first round, let’s just say Seoul is a winner, and if you ever do visit I fully recommend watching a movie there.