Asian movies on the upswing in North Texas

The hit Korean political film ‘The King’ opens this weekend at Cine Oasis.
The hit Korean political film ‘The King’ opens this weekend at Cine Oasis. Next Entertainment World

This is the first in an occasional series on hidden cultural experiences around North Texas.


When first arriving at the Cine Oasis theater on Trinity Mills Road in the new Koreatown that has blossomed in this part of North Texas, you’re convinced your GPS has developed a cruel sense of humor. The faceless, multistory building looks like the kind of place where there’d be more interest in showing office space to corporate clients than Office Space to moviegoers.

There’s no marquee and only small signage indicating that films are being shown inside. But the former dollar-movie theater is pioneering a particular niche. The two-screen, 200-capacity Cine Oasis, which opened 18 months ago, only screens movies from South Korea.

You can visit it this weekend as part of your Asian Lunar New Year celebration or if you’ve seen all the Oscar nominees and want something different. At Cine Oasis, you can even watch the movies — subtitled in English — while knocking back a plate of buttered grilled calamari from the concession counter instead of buttered popcorn.

Yet for all of Cine Oasis’ distinction from any other Metroplex multiplex, it’s not alone. It’s surfing a small but growing wave of interest in Asian films in DFW, even if they fly under most filmgoers’ radar. It joins a small list that includes other specialty theaters, like the FunAsia chain in Irving and Richardson, which shows films from South Asia.

In any given week, larger players such as AMC Grapevine Mills, Cinemark Rave North East Mall in Hurst and Cinemark Legacy Plano are showing new films from South Korea, China or India. Part of this is explained by DFW’s growing Asian population.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported nearly 340,000 Asians living in the seven main North Texas counties in 2010, up from nearly 194,000 in 2000. The numbers have only mushroomed since then. In 2014, the Census Bureau reported that between 2010 and 2013, the Asian population surged 20 percent in Denton County, 18.5 percent in Rockwall, 18.1 percent in Collin, 14.9 percent in Dallas and 10.8 percent in Tarrant County.

Cine Oasis attracts many like 15-year-old Alex Kim, who, after only being in the U.S. for a week from South Korea, was at the theater with his guardian, Eunice Pak.

“It’s the only way we can see a Korean movie in a theater,” he said.

Each week, DFW is getting films — like the new Chinese-Indian-produced Jackie Chan comedy Kung Fu Yoga (opening Friday at Cinemark Legacy Plano), the hit Korean political film The King (opening Friday at Cine Oasis), the Hindi films Kaabil and Raees (playing at the Cinemark North East Mall), or the Korean action film Confidential Assignment (opening Feb. 3 at Cine Oasis) — almost concurrently with their Asian openings.

But these movies are also are attracting a wider audience. Asian anime and animation, martial-arts, action, horror, and art-house films — with movies ranging from Princess Mononoke to Bollywood to last year’s critically adored The Handmaiden — have long had enthusiastic non-Asian fans. And they’re seeking out places like Cine Oasis.

This group includes sisters Rebecca and Sarah Halter, who regularly make the 92-mile trek from Sulphur Springs to Carrollton.

“When I studied abroad in Japan, I got to go to Korea and I really liked it a lot,” said Rebecca, 21, who came to the theater last weekend to see the Korean crime thriller Master and maybe shop at the Asian-themed H Mart grocery store next door. “My friends were into K-pop [Korean pop music] and stuff and they introduced me to all of that.”

Now, DFW not only supports the 15-year-old Asian Film Festival of Dallas every summer but also the DFW South Asian Film Festival. The third edition of that showcase begins March 3 in Addison with kickoff screenings of the coming-of-age comedy Growing Up Smith on Feb. 1 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and Feb. 2 at Frisco City Hall. The film opens theatrically Feb. 3.

‘Train’ to popularity

This is all good news for those involved in distributing and screening Asian films in North Texas.

“Dallas is a burgeoning market,” says Jitin Hingorani, director of the DFW South Asian Film Festival. “Distributors are realizing there’s a lot of diversity in Dallas. … It’s heartening to see all of these big companies moving [here] and bringing with them huge numbers of employees, a lot of whom are Asian.”

He’s referring to such corporations as Liberty Mutual, State Farm and Toyota, the latter of which is moving its North American headquarters to Plano, bringing perhaps as many as 3,000 employees in the process.

Still, Hingorani notes that the festival attracts a significant number of non-Asians: “We said in our first year that our mainstream, meaning non-South Asian, audience was about 16 percent of our overall audience. The second year that number jumped to 21 percent, and we’re hoping in our third year that number goes up to 25 percent. … The idea is to really share our stories and let people realize, especially in this kind of political climate, that our stories are no different than their stories.”

Paul Shin, who operates Cine Oasis and sometimes books Asian films at AMC Grapevine Mills, says he has seen an upsurge in non-Asians at Cine Oasis since screening the hit South Korean zombie thriller Train to Busan last summer. (That film did so well in its initial limited run at theaters like Cine Oasis that it’s now being remade in English in the U.S.)

“From that film, lots of [non-Asian] Americans were aware that we are here,” he said. “People are gradually becoming aware that these [films] are different than a Hollywood film.”

He also said that he attracted a majority non-Asian audience for Spirits’ Homecoming, the drama about Korean girls forced by the Japanese to become sex slaves during WWII that has developed a following among those concerned with human rights.

Mid-tier market

Still, Jason Pfardrescher, senior vice president at Plano-based Well Go USA, one of the major distributors of Asian movies in the U.S., says DFW is still a mid-tier market for Asian films compared to California (where the L.A. area sports two outposts of CGV Cinemas, South Korea’s largest theater chain) or New York.

“Naturally, New York, L.A. and San Francisco are really your higher-grossing markets,” he said. “Dallas is kind of in that second wave [with Houston, Atlanta, Seattle and Chicago].”

He notes that it’s still the genre movies — action, horror, martial arts — that perform best with non-Asians or in the post-theatrical home entertainment market. “Where it gets a bit challenging, in terms of crossover, is when it’s your romantic comedies or your dramas,” he said.

Case in point is the blowout success of the zombie-themed Train to Busan last year, which Well Go took from 20 to 120 screens in the U.S., largely fueled by rabid word-of-mouth from the film’s fans and English-language media.

“That was all designed to give it more visibility outside of the Korean community,” he said, though he notes that there isn’t a large budget for marketing most of these films, thus keeping them from broad-based awareness.

But that’s not always the case. Americans are likely to see more big-budget, crossover Asian films, too, as China cranks up more production, including films with American stars like Matt Damon in the bilingual The Great Wall, a co-production with Universal that’s opening wide Feb. 17.

“Right now, China is the No. 2 market in terms of box office. … With that growth in China box office, you’ve started to see a level of interest with the Chinese diaspora in the U.S. in these films as well,” says Pfardrescher.

For Shin, who is Korean, he’s considering expanding what he shows beyond South Korean films to include movies from other countries. Other communities have asked him to consider showing films from their countries.

Said Shin, “I hope this theater, even though it’s small, could be the best place to see and meet Asian cultures, especially in film.”

Cary Darling: 817-390-7571, @carydar

Growing Up Smith

Screening and Q&A with two of the stars presented by the DFW South Asian Film Festival:

  • 8 p.m. Feb. 1 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St.; $15
  • 7 p.m. Feb. 2 at Frisco City Hall, 6101 Frisco Square Blvd.; $15

DFW South Asian Film Festival

  • March 3-5
  • AMC Village on the Parkway, 5100 Belt Line Road, Addison

Where to find Asian films in DFW

Alamo Drafthouse: These guys sometimes will show Asian genre classics, as with a recent screening of Hong Kong director John Woo’s early ’90s action masterwork Hard Boiled. 1005 S. Lamar St., Dallas; 100 S. Central Expressway, Richardson.

AMC Grapevine Mills: In any given week, this 30-screen behemoth is devoting two to four screens to films from East or South Asia. 3150 Grapevine Mills Parkway, Grapevine. Occasionally, other local multiplexes such as Cinemark Rave North East Mall and Legacy Plano show these films as well.

Angelika Dallas and Plano: These art-house multiplexes often show the more prestige, indie-oriented Asian films — like Korean director Park Chan-wook’s celebrated The Handmaiden from last year — as well as anything from Japan’s Studio Ghibli animation studio.

Asian Film Festival of Dallas: Held every summer since 2002, usually at the Angelika Dallas, it brings in new films from all over the continent. This year’s festival runs July 13-20.

Cine Oasis: If you crave Korean films, this two-screen multiplex is the spot, as that’s all it shows. One drawback for Anglophones: The website is mostly in Korean. 1130 W. Trinity Mills Road, Carrollton.

Dallas International Film Festival: Befitting its name, this festival usually has several Asian films on its schedule. March 30-April

DFW South Asian Film Festival: Now in its third year, this festival focuses on films from the Indian subcontinent or those in the South Asian diaspora around the world. March 3-5 at AMC Village on the Parkway, 5100 Belt Line Road, Addison.

FunAsia: The prime spot to see films from India in DFW. There are two locations: 1210 E. Belt Line Road in Richardson and the Hollywood Theater at 8505 Walton Blvd. in Irving.

Premiere Video: For those who still like old-school video-rental stores, this Dallas location is a treasure trove of foreign cinema with a large selection of films from all over the world including South Korea, Hong Kong, China, Japan, South Asia and the Middle East. 5400 E. Mockingbird Lane, Suite 104, Dallas.

Texas Theatre: The art house often shows classic films. On Feb. 2-4, the venue celebrates Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune by showing the legendary Rashomon and Yojimbo. Also screening is a documentary about the actor, Mifune: The Last Samurai. 231 W. Jefferson Blvd., Dallas.

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