You could hear it — and smell it — but you couldn't see it. Last Friday night, a movie theater opened at Madang, a brand-new upscale mini-mall just north of the corner of Wilshire and Western.
Madang means "courtyard" in Korean, and in a nod to traditional Korean architecture, the mall is built above and around a massive open space — almost entirely obscured from the street by its cylindrical cinder-block outside wall. So as muffled music and the aroma of grilling meat drifted to the subway station across the street, there was no way for a passerby (or driverby) to know what was going on inside the mall's cavernous courtyard. They couldn't see the bustling crowd eating buffet-style barbecue, while waitresses wearing corsets with tuxedo tails passed around trays of Johnny Walker Gold, and a Korean boy band played English-language pop pitched somewhere between Matchbox 20 and the Killers. Nor could they know that on the complex's top floor, partygoers milled in and out of CGV Cinemas, a sparkling 3-D–outfitted triplex complete with gelato bar, where Blades of Blood, a class revolt epic/slapstick action comedy and this summer's blockbuster in Korea, was screening for free. Inside, my plus one summed up the scene: "It's like the secret Korean Hollywood & Highland!"
As a non-Korean who lives in Koreatown, I've had the experience of stumbling into local bars and restaurants that felt "hidden" in plain sight — places without English signs or menus, where the state smoking laws don't seem to apply — establishments that don't explicitly exclude non-Korean patrons but don't go out of their way to attract them. They do fine without marketing beyond the home team. And so it goes for much non–film festival Asian cinema, including Bollywood, in the States: A media company like CJ will book a film into a screen in an urban area with a high concentration of expats, and promote it only to that specific immigrant community, bypassing the local English-language media and moviegoers altogether.
"I consider myself to be pretty savvy about Asian cinema," says Grady Hendrix, a writer and the co-founder/director of the New York Asian Film Festival. "And I'll tell you — some of these Korean movies come out here, and play the AMC, and I never hear about them. They don't get written about in white-person newspapers. They don't appear in online listings. They don't exist for non-Korean speakers."
But CJ Entertainment, the largest media company in Asia and the theater's financiers, don't want CGV to be a secret — or purely Korean.
"First of all, we really want to serve our community, and the biggest Korean-American community is here in L.A.," says CGV operations manager Christable Lee, over kimbap at Schoolfood in the Madang mall. "But we also really want to spread love for Asian cinema. We're trying to get [American] people to like Korean movies."
The plan is to lure non-Koreans to the theater with familiar Hollywood product. When the theater opens to paying customers on June 11, Blades of Blood will play with English subtitles on one screen; Korean-subtitled versions of How to Train Your Dragon and The Karate Kid will fill the other two. Going forward, CGV will attempt to "bring Korean films here as fast as they come out in Korea," according to Lee, while also pulling in revenue on one or two screens from Hollywood hits.
This kind of cultural evangelism is tricky business. "The road of distribution is litered with the carcasses of companies that had really big ideas about introducing Asian films to American audiences," Hendrix says. Most recently, ImaginAsian was forced to close its single-screen downtown LA theater after less than a year.
With the margin for error slim, CGV is focusing on commerce over art. Its Korean fare is likely to be somewhat different from the Korean films that hard-core American cinefiles are generally exposed to, the art films seen at international festivals (Hong Sang-Soo's Ha Ha Ha and Lee Chang-Dong's Poetry both just won major prizes at Cannes). These pictures are occasionally released stateside by American indie distributors, targeted primarily to the passionate but infinitesimally small demographic that gives a shit about cinematic pedigree. Instead, CGV's slate will likely trend toward Korean blockbusters — which, like their American counterparts, tend to combine action, comedy and romance in an attempt to offer something for anyone interested in freezing cognitive function for two hours. That's a fair description of Blades of Blood. The Servant, which opens at CGV on July 2, adds over-the-top explicit sex into the mix.
"We want to bring the exciting, big films," Lee says. "The Oldboys, the Secret Sunshines — those films that go to Cannes — we're bringing those too, but they are hard to get at the same time as they're shown in Korea. And everything is box-office driven. If it plays for two weeks and no one's in the theater, of course we're going to have to take it out, no matter how well it did in Cannes or anything like that."
But even if CGV is hedging its bets against the highbrow, Hendrix says "blockbuster" is not necessarily a universal language. "They're coming from a culture and a film industry that shows subtitled films on a regular basis. There's a big ring of cities all through the Pacific Rim — Seoul, Taipei, Tokyo, Bangkok — where people are multilingual. They watch movies from other countries, movies with subtitles. Not because they're sophisticated but because that's just the way it is. And they're coming to a country like America, where movies with subtitles are art-house movies. Period, full stop, end of story. And people who don't watch art-house movies don't go to see subtitled movies.
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"I wish it was different," he adds. "But you're trying to sell a suspicious audience something that smells like education and homework."
In today's L.A. movie-theater landscape, where every month seems to bring news of another theater closing (the ghost town multiplex at the Beverly Center finally flatlined last week), or just barely escaping the axe (see the two historic movie houses Regency recently rescued in Westwood), the addition of any new screens into the marketplace would seem to qualify as good news. But Robert Bucksbaum, president of industry data research firm Exhibitor Relations and owner of the Majestic Crest theater in Westwood, says there are actually too many general-purpose cinema screens in this town as it is — the old theaters are shuttering because they can't compete with shiny new spaces like The Grove. CGV has a dual gimmick: Korean films for Korean locals, and an upscale environment with state-of-the-art technology to lure patrons from nearby communities like Hancock Park. According to Bucksbaum, it would be a fool's mission to open a new theater any other way.
"I think they're on the right track," he says. "If you live within two miles of where my theater is, you've got more than 50 theaters to choose from. The only way to be successful is to do something to make your theater stand out from the rest."
There's no question that CGV stands out from the competition; the jury is out as to whether the non-Korean audience will take the bait. But if you have to see The Karate Kid this weekend, there's probably not a nicer place in L.A. for you to do it.