Korea can, at times, be somewhat culturally inaccessible to those who are not competent with the language. The average foreigner can easily navigate the city, try new foods, and experience some of the history. But a lot of the meaning can be lost in translation. One area where this is most felt is at the cinema.
K-pop has such a strong following that the fans have made it more accessible with their sheer numbers alone. There are plenty of places where people can find lyrics translated and transliterated to help people understand the true meaning and feeling of the songs. Korean television—particularly K-dramas—also have this ability to some extent. However, when it comes to Korean movies there is far less (legal) access to Korean movies if you are not a fluent Korean speaker.
The film industry has a very tight grip on its content, which includes subtitle creation. In the past South Korea, China and other countries have cracked down on the people who create subtitle files for illegal copies and torrents of popular films. For the casual film buff who speaks only one language this means that it continually gets more and more difficult to find foreign films.
For foreigners in Korea, there are options out there for watching new Korean releases in the theater but very few theaters offer English subtitled show times. Even if the theaters do provide translation, the subtitled versions are only available a few times a week. Not very convenient. Even with Netflix’s introduction to the Korean market in the last year has not helped increased access for Korean movies due to the fact that so few of the films have English subtitles readily available on Korean Netflix.
But there is a solution, and it is one that has existed for years: the DVD 방.
The DVD room has a bit of a negative perception, because of its stigma as a location for illicit and clandestine meetings for people who don’t want to or can’t spring for a motel. Other people use DVD rooms as places to wait for the subway to open while recovering from a night of heavy drinking. In either case the DVD room doesn’t quite have the same appeal that the PC rooms enjoy.
However if you are in need of a place to watch a Korean movie, be it decades old or a new release DVD rooms are the perfect place, because the DVDs almost always have multi-language subtitles. Most DVD rooms have a few hundred selections to choose from with new film choices frequently rotated into the stacks so you don’t have to wait too long for the big summer blockbusters to be released.
The DVD room experience doesn’t end with the subtitles though. Like many Korean experiences there are a variety of amenities to choose from.
Part of the reason DVD rooms have the seedy reputation is because most of the rooms don’t have chairs, they have sofa beds. Each private room typically has a table, a sofa bed, and a large screen for your viewing pleasure. Rooms have enough space to accommodate no more than two people, but it is possible to find some rooms that can fit as many as four or five. The nicer DVD rooms can be quite comfortable and little more expensive, but the no-frills options are not far off in terms of quality—the only real concern being the cleanliness of the room.
Most DVD rooms will run between 10,000 and 30,000 Won. The more expensive ones are more likely to have complimentary snacks or special sound and/or screen features. Nevertheless, in most cases, basic drinks and snacks are available for purchase. Or if you prefer you can always just bring in your own food.
The bottom-line is this; DVD rooms are an excellent resource for learning about Korea through film. Whether it is for language practice, cultural understanding, or just plain fun, the DVD room is a great way to spend a day, and when the weather is awful in the summer or winter it’s an easy way to have some fun in a comfortable setting. They are not hard to find and you are sure to find a new Korean movie that you will definitely enjoy.