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Wednesday, July 12, 2000

Time travel in downtown Seoul


By JOSEPH LIEBERMAN

As a resident of Japan, one might be forgiven for assuming that the South Korean film industry is nearly nonexistent, considering the scarcity of offerings here. In fact, South Korean media production is prolific, but it sometimes takes an unexpected circumstance to bring this into clear focus.

If you enjoy watching movies and videos, odds are you have seen at least several foreign releases in Japan during the past year. Odds are even better that none of them originated in South Korea. The same would hold true in reverse if this were being written in Seoul. For the most part, cinematic exchanges between the two countries are a mutual dead end.

Despite cultural agreements signed by Japan and South Korea in recent years, artistic interactions remain minimal, with what could be a flood of entertainment options still a mere trickle.

Glossy magazines and pop music were in the first small wave of Japanese cultural imports allowed into South Korea, and were eagerly snapped up by the young. In Japan, diversional exports from Seoul and Pusan have always been welcome, but mainly by ethnic Koreans who make up the largest segment of the country's "foreign" resident population.

Legislators in Seoul have been accused of operating counter to the best interests of the South Korean movie industry by making laws which restrict the chaebol, South Korea's major business consortiums, from financing studios. The government's morally commendable reasoning is that with a handful of chaebol controlling so much of South Korea's commerce, to allow them into the scripting and editing rooms as well would create a kind of cultural hegemony too much to their own advantage.

The result, however, is that the cinemas which show the movies end up subsidizing the movie-makers. The law requires that 40 percent of exhibited films be of South Korean origin. Without the big money backing that foreign motion pictures have, the local movie industry has to churn out a large number of low budget productions in order to try to fill that quota. Fans know that, and many prefer to save their admissions cash for slicker options from abroad.

All of these factors work to prevent South Korea from enjoying much of a cinematic reputation overseas, which brings us back to the unexpected incident mentioned earlier.

On a visit to the magnificent Kyongbokkung Palace during a stopover in Seoul, we happened to see a classically costumed middle-aged Korean man pulling an airport-style suitcase across the palace's cobbled courtyard. Visiting Kyongbokkung is not anything unusual in itself -- thousands of tourists do that each day. What was puzzling was seeing this time-warp figure moving in so strange a fashion as he crossed the inner palace grounds. Appearing to emanate from 600 years ago (but for the modern suitcase), he seemed to be lost, as a true time traveler might well be.

Suddenly the target of our attention hurried down a narrow path between two high walled structures, turned a corner and disappeared. The mystery was finally solved when we followed in his footsteps through a high doorway, which opened like a time tunnel to reveal hundreds of brightly clad and armored military men from several centuries past, an entire army of ancient warriors.

It didn't take long to realize we had stumbled into the filming of a movie or TV show, and we tried to make ourselves as innocuous as possible to observe the action. A local journalist, Juan Kang of the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, explained that the director, Kim Jae Hyong, was that very night receiving first prize for Best Television Director of the year.

The series he was producing, "Yong Eui Noon Mool (Tears of the Dragon)," had been rated the number one weekly historic drama on TV. The story centers on Taejong, third king of the Yi (Choson) Dynasty (1392-1910), who killed even members of his own family to consolidate his power. The lead role is played by one of South Korea's top-ranking actors, You Dong Guen.

History being the stickiest subject separating most nations, this drama series is not something we can expect to see in Japan anytime soon, but our close encounter with ancient royalty and modern media stars was both titillating and enlightening.

After such an escapade it might seem that all else in the city would be anticlimactic. Such was not the case, however, as we discovered that evening at the Grand Hyatt Seoul. The hotel is located on the south border of Namsan Park, home of Seoul Tower, supposedly the third tallest such structure in the world.

Being the city's premier luxury hotel, the Grand Hyatt is a natural magnet for the cinematic types who make up the overlapping theatrical worlds of contemporary Korea. On any given evening, JJ Mahoney's, the Hyatt's disco bar and live lounge, attracts an assortment of the Seoul's "beautiful people." It was no surprise to see several cast members of "Tears of the Dragon" hard at play there.

Of course, if you are attuned to it, almost any street you walk down in central Seoul can be full of drama and cultural surprises. Film, TV and magazines can be stimulating, but they are no substitute for real life, the first-person experience of being there.

Then again, more media exchanges between Japan and South Korea would not hurt, either. Both nations would benefit, and we international travelers would be better prepared to appreciate the cultural assets we stumble upon.



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