I wasn’t spending my high school years getting laid, but I was hanging out where all the action was taking place: the infamous DVD rooms of Korea. For the equivalent of about only $10 (give or take, depending on the size of your party), you could rent out a private screening room to watch one of the movies from their collection. That meant one thing for many patrons: 90 or so undisturbed minutes to get freaky behind closed doors, without the threat of your mom bursting in. You see, Korea is a tiny country sardine-packed with people, most of whom dwell in small apartments. It’s normal, unstigmatized—necessary, even—to live with your parents well into your adulthood, which is great for saving on rent money, but poses some obstacles, as you can imagine, when it comes to dating. Thus these rooms have become the unspoken go-to for horny couples: it’s much cheaper than getting a motel room, plus they always have a pretty robust pornography selection.
But here’s how I saw it: I, too, lived in a small apartment with my parents, but because no one had any, even remotely, romantic interest in me for a long while, DVD rooms allowed for a different kind of relief for me. I’ve always dreamt of living in a big house with a decked out home theater, but I never felt comfortable watching movies in our cozy apartment at the full, desired volume, afraid I’d get a knock from my neighbors just six feet outside our own door, or from the lady upstairs whose shrill screaming I could hear nightly and especially loudly from my bathroom. Sure, I’ve had occasional trips to movie theaters for a fuller cinematic experience, but with such limited releases in Korea, the cheaper admission price, and the ability to yell freely at the screen with your friend, I was more interested in these private arenas.
I grew up just a little bit outside of the metropolitan area of Seoul and spent most of my teenage years being moody, blasting My Chemical Romance from my second generation green iPod, and grumbling about the homogeneity of the nation and the distinct lack of subcultures I had witnessed in American coming-of-age movies. My best friend Caroline and I weren’t bad kids; all things considered, we were actively straight A-aspiring good kids and we didn’t even smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. But we still had a bit of a rebellious spirit, frustrated by the sameness of everyone’s tastes and how all our male classmates were flocking to PC rooms (Internet cafés) to play World of Warcraft.
When puberty hit, we started dressing like Hot Topic goths and spent many of our days at the aforementioned borderline-sketchy establishments. In these dark, sparse rooms, our identities were shaped. I would come to love “cooler,” artier films later—in the fall of 2008, I would move to New York, watch Godard’s Breathless for the first time, discover Cassavetes, eventually learn about repertory theaters—but between the years of 2004 and 2008, I had an obsession with apocalyptic movies and watching them in these vibrating, unsupervised little theaters. I was getting a lot of action at these places—just not that kind.
Caroline and I saw a lot of bad thrillers during those four years: that Josh Hartnett zombie movie (I had to literally google “Josh Hartnett zombie movie” because I could not remember the title; turns out it is called 30 Days of Night), the similarly titled but much better zombie movie 28 Days Later, and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later, too. I vaguely recall watching an Underworld movie or two. I remember excitedly renting Cloverfield after hearing all the buzz about people literally getting sick and fainting from the dizzying cinematography. I also remember walking out proudly after having survived it, as if I were the protagonist of an apocalyptic scenario myself. I sat through multiple viewings of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. After watching it the first time, I loved it so much that I just had to show it to Caroline. (After a recent rewatch of The Happening, I maintain that it’s a great movie.) Caroline always complained about my dystopian movie choices, but I’m sure she enjoyed them too, based on our frequent and enthused returns, and how we reminisce about those days now.
It actually took me a while to realize that these quaint quarters were notoriously destinations for people who just wanted to have sex. I always assumed the box of tissues by the chaise lounge was for wiping away tears during sad movies. I used those tissues once, after watching that harrowing scene of Will Smith’s dog dying in I Am Legend. One time, I went to a DVD room with a boy I liked, and then afterwards jokingly told Caroline that things got hot and heavy. She believed me and I embarrassingly had to clarify that we actually just sat stiffly next to each other while watching Scoop and casually parted ways with a “that was fun!” when it was over. Sometime later, this boy and I, plus eight or so of our friends, shoved ourselves into a not-big-enough private room and watched that Adam Sandler movie The Longest Yard—definitely the most light-hearted movie I saw there, likely after a failed attempt to get everyone to watch something scarier. We were literally piled on top of each other. For all anyone knew, we were there for an Adam Sandler-fueled orgy, but the front desk guy didn’t care.
The last time I went to a DVD room was the summer of 2010. I was attending NYU by then, but I would come back home to Korea for summer and winter vacations. The whole country had World Cup fever, and I, too, was spending many a night out with friends screaming at bar TV screens during games, which would take place at ungodly hours due to the time difference with South Africa. After one especially grueling, late-night Korea game, long after subways and buses stopped running and hours before they’d start again for the early morning crowd, my friends and I were stranded, too cheap and too bored to spend cab money to go home. So we went to a place almost like home: a nearby DVD room, just to have a place to lie down and maybe take a nap before our exhausting commute home. Except we chose to watch Ju-on, deliriously sleepy but too haunted to fall asleep, hallucinating ghosts in shadowed corners. None of us got any sleep that night. But we still weren’t getting any action.
Kristen Yoonsoo Kim is a South Korea-born, New York-based film critic whose writing has appeared in The Village Voice, GQ, Pitchfork, and elsewhere.