Sunday, October 31, 2010

60 years of moviegoing culture at a glance in Korea

A retro movie projector and hand-painted poster are on display at Gwangju Theater, which opened in 1935. / Korea Times file

By Lee Hyo-won
Today, Korea ranks among the world’s top 10 in terms of box office sales and film industry size. It’s hard to imagine that in the 1950s, just over a dozen films were being produced.

The fact, however, that cinema was a major source of entertainment, has remained largely intact over the decades — though moviegoers these days do not have to worry about policemen keeping an eye on you from the back row, or black market vendors trying to sell you better seats at a higher price. The Korea Times looks into how the local moviegoing culture has evolved over time.
War Diaspora

In the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-53), local filmmaking was at a low. Only 15 films were made in 1955 but the number eventually shot up to 83 in 1958.

As Koreans fled the war zone en masse, reputable film projects were produced outside of the arts capital of Seoul; master director Shin Sang-ok, for example, shot and released his 1952 film “The Evil Night” in Busan, while theatergoers in Daegu were the first to watch Min Gyeong-shik’s “Streets Under the Sun” (1952).

Movie theaters naturally catered mostly to Hollywood imports and staged live performances. The latter wasn’t anything unusual, since the first motion pictures were silent works that were shown as a backdrops for theatrical shows.

Yet toward the end of the decade movies began to take its place at the center of mainstream entertainment, which paved the path for the ’60s, which is widely recognized as the golden age of Korean cinema.
Peculiar cinema paradise

More than 100 films were being rolled out each year during the ’60s, and becoming a movie star or director became a dream for many. With cinemas sprouting all over the country, another sought-after job was painting movie posters that adorned the entire facade of buildings.

Movie theaters were often called “culture theaters,” being the center of entertainment for the masses. These were large halls, with 800 to 1,000 seats, and newspapers from the times are cluttered with various happenings in and around them, such as students protesting the opening of a theater near their school, for fear it would interrupt their studies.

Today diehard fans might be willing to buy standing tickets to a rock concert; back then many were willing to stand through an entire movie. In an Aug. 30, 1960 article, Seoul News criticized how cinemas were illegally selling “ipgyeonpyo” (standing tickets) and that the police were largely ignoring this.

Theaters were prone to close watch: There were “imgeomseok” or seats designated for police, who would attend screenings to check whether censored scenes made their way into the running time and to ensure an “orderly” movie-watching atmosphere.

These venues were also subject to strict regulations regarding hygiene and safety. “Films were highly combustible and so there were specific laws outlining details about fire hazards, the distance between the seats and even having standard bathrooms,” said Cho Jun-hyoung, a researcher at the Korean Film Archive.

Another cause of headaches for both authorities and theatergoers were black market sales. Because there was no reservation system, ticket vendors often were bribed to sell tickets in mass under the table, and black market vendors lingered around theaters hoping to sell good seats at higher prices.

It’s no wonder that the competition for tickets was so fierce; only about six theaters in the country showcased premieres. “Films were expensive and other theaters had to wait for them to be copied for subsequent openings,” said Cho.

Theaters were usually categorized into venues that screened either domestic or foreign flicks, and were also reputed for showing specific genres: Dansungsa, Korea’s first movie theater that opened in 1907 and still stands in Jongno (though as a Cinus chain), was known for the latest Hollywood action movies while people flocked to catch youth-themed stories at Academy Theater or to went to watch Shin Films’ movie premieres at Myungbo Theater in Chungmuro.

Today, theaters are concerned with online piracy lowering ticket sales. Back in the ’60s, it was the increasing domestic ownership of television sets that were a source of worry — “Some argue that housewives have stopped going to theaters ever since movies have begun to be shown on television,” said the Chosun Ilbo (Aug. 23, 1962).
Racing against TV

“Television killed the movie star” — in 1965 the number of TVs accounted for about 30,000 (0.61 percent of households) but shot up to 2 million (about 41 percent of households) just a decade later in 1975. The annual cinema audience size dropped from 173 million in 1969 to 65 million in 1979. Also, the opening of the Gyeongbu Expressway incited a boom in family outings that were no longer limited to downtown destinations.

The 1970s marked difficult times for cinemas, and the desperation can be seen through the posters, which was crowded with the faces of virtually all the cast members. Touting passersby on the street to catch the last screening also peaked during this decade. Another attempt to attract moviegoers was by offering “package shows” — special live performances at the end of screenings, which ranged from impressive orchestral and dance performances.

“The small screen proved be a challenge but big screens were able to endure by showing genre-specific films and offering things the former couldn’t — namely sex, violence, and eye-catching spectacles and scenery,” said Min. This was made possible due chiefly to the loosened censorship under the Chun Doo-hwan regime.

A prime example is the 1982 premiere of the Jeong In-yeob’s iconic erotic film “The Ae-ma Woman.” Due to the influx of moviegoers on the opening day, there were reports of glass breaking and such. It drew a whopping 310,000 audiences over a long run of four months in theaters.

Another big change in the ’80s was the rise of small-scale theaters, as the aforementioned safety/hygiene regulations were loosened. This actually saved a lot of theaters that were going out of business and allowed people to watch films in theaters nearby without having to go downtown. Experts say this laid the foundation for the rise of multiplex theaters in the years to come.
Rise of the multiplex

Korea’s first multiple-screen venue was Damoa Theater, which opened in 1986 and housed three screens. Theaters of this kind created new public spaces: Koa Art Hall, for example, hired a programmer to select thematic works, began a membership system and also constructed a cinema library.

These venues are credited with transforming the actual cinema-going experience, by changing the image of theaters from dark, uncomfortable spaces into accessible, family-friendly venues with comfortable seats and a wide range of titles. It’s an age where homegrown films are drawing in as many as more than 10 million viewers — about a fifth of the entire population.

Local mulitiplex franchises have now increased their own know-how, and CGV for example, has chains in the United States and China.

Small theaters, however, have not lost their charms. Spongehouse, Cinecube and other such art houses offer less mainstream works while CGV Apgujeong and Gangbyeon, Seoul Cinema have a screen dedicated solely to art films. Hollywood Theater in Jongno, one of the oldest in the city, has turned into Silver Cinema, an exclusive space for retro films for the elderly, who the speedy blockbusters showing in most theaters too overwhelming,

Adding extra dimension

Now theaters are going through another paradigm shift with the introduction of 3D cinema.

Most multiplex theaters are equipped with 3D projectors and CGV and Lotte Cinema have even introduced “4D” screenings — theatergoers can watch movies with not only 3D visuals but also with sensory effects through specialized chairs that rotate, blow wind and even squirt water.

Moreover, the silver screen is no longer limited to cinema — theaters are screening opera performances straight from the New York Met, baseball games, World Cup matches and pop concerts.

“Theaters need to offer new types of entertainment that can be only enjoyed there, and this is one way to deal with the problem of illegal downloading and the circulation of pirated DVDs,” said Yi Sang-kyu, head of PR at CGV.

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