Thursday, August 5, 2010

On being a movie lover trapped between worlds

When I was stressed out in Japan, I discovered that American movies provided a much-needed escape from the culture shock and tedium of everyday problems. Movie theater tickets are expensive in Japan, typically 1500 yen (about $15) except on special discount days. Happily, rental DVDs are quite cheap, less than $2. In Kyoto I lived about a 10-minute bike ride away from "American Video", which had an extensive collection of both movies and TV shows from America on DVD. I got in the habit of rewarding myself with a movie night at the end of a busy week. I rarely found that they lacked a movie that I wanted; I once memorably found a Rocky Horror Picture Show DVD and treated my friends to a RHPS viewing party, initiating them in that glorious American tradition. In addition, a large section of the store was dedicated to "Hanryuu" (Korean movies and dramas), which I made extensive use of, particularly in the last year in preparation for moving to Korea.

Japanese and Mongolian friends enjoying the Rocky Horror Picture Show, at my Kyoto apartment, Fall 2007
When I got to Korea, I expected to find an even cheaper and broader DVD selection available, given how famous Koreans are for piracy and their affinity for US culture. I was disappointed when the only rental stores I could find were tiny, grimy cubbyholes inside of local shopping arcades, with barely one row of US DVDs. The domestic movie section was not much more extensive. Watching movies in the theater was blessedly cheaper, only about $7, and new movies came out almost immediately after their opening date in the US (unlike Japan, where one often has to wait 2 months or more). But I was puzzled - where were Koreans getting their home entertainment?

After talking with various people, I eventually came to the conclusion that internet cable services and streaming movie websites had become so pervasive that no one was renting physical media from stores anymore. My friends recommended I go to one of the many Korean online movie sites for my entertainment needs. However I found that all of these sites, like most things in Korea, required a jumin tungnokso (residents' registration number), which as a foreigner I do not have. Also they typically expect payment by Korean credit card, which I was not qualified to have under my student visa. None of the foreigners I talked to had any luck using these sites.

Most frustrating was hearing the talk from my Chinese classmates, who were merrily watching the latest US dramas on Chinese streaming websites. There was one girl in my class who always appeared to be exhausted, nodding over her textbook. Whenever our teacher in exasperation demanded to know what she had been doing to make her so tired, she would reply, "I was up all night watching Criminal Minds" or some such. The Chinese websites also offered the most recent Korean dramas with Chinese subtitles, which meant that even the least capable student in my class had a better idea of what was going on on these shows than I did.

I eventually decided that if the Korean websites did not want my business, I would try an American one. I had heard many of my friends from the US talk with enthusiasm about Netflix, which sounded like a similar kind of service. However, when I tried to register, I ran into a familiar problem. The system would not accept my US credit card address as correct, since it knew I was registering from a computer in Korea. This is an automatic anti-fraud measure that either has been recently developed or else specifically targets Korea, because I never had any problem with it in Japan.

I still thought Netflix was worth a try, though, so during my last trip to the US I went online and had no problem in registering. I had my doubts, but the service offered a free 2-week trial period, so I figured if it gave me problems in Korea, I could just cancel.

Back in Korea, I promptly logged in, beginning to feel the faint stirrings of optimism that I would soon be able to enjoy the Simpsons, X-Files, and all my favorite movies again. However, I was rudely denied:

I was disappointed, but not surprised. I did a little digging online and found a useful blog entry from one very pissed-off US marine who had just arrived in Korea and was having the same problem. Many helpful people had commented that it is possible to get around the problem by using a VPN program to mask the computer's IP. Such programs are readily available on the internet, but using one to watch Netflix overseas is at least quasi-illegal, and of course I would never deliberately act against the laws of my country. Just as I would never lie in a blog entry...

So anyway, if I had done that very bad, naughty, illegal thing - which I definitely did not do - I would have found that it is possible to watch streaming video on Netflicks from Korea, and the video quality is reasonably good and fast. The only problem is that many of the TV shows, and nearly all of the movies, that I would have wanted to watch are not available for streaming online. Still, Netflix is a partial solution for those who are not choosy and just want to watch something, anything, in English. And now that I have an E7 visa and a job, I am hopeful that I will soon be able to obtain a Korean credit card so that I can use a Korean movie site. In the meantime, I should be thankful that the law, and the cultural trend against dvd rentals, have saved me from myself, and I am doomed at least in the short-term to spend my after-work hours on more productive activities.


  1. Are you able to access websites like Hulu from Korea? It could get you by until you get your Koren credit card.

  2. Hey, thanks Liz. I actually didn't know about Hulu, but looking it up, it seems it has the same legal problem as Netflix - it doesn't allow you to view shows outside the US, but you can get around it using a VPN. Also, it seems a lot slower than Netflix.