- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2001

ATLANTA Lee Ji Eun is a wench, an ogre and a tycoon-in-the-making rolled into one.

She sabotages her sister's garment shop and steals her man. With compulsive lying, the 20-something brown-noser acquires a high-end fashion label. Even worse, she rejoices at her father's misfortune: a car wreck that crushes the truck driver and puts him in a coma.

What will fate bestow on her?

To satisfy your curiosity, rent the video "Bih-Mil," or "Secret," a dramatic series on television about blood ties, trickery and redemption.

You may need a Korean-language dictionary, because English isn't uttered in any action flicks, tear-jerkers or slapstick comedies shipped from South Korea and neatly stacked on the shelves at Video Town in Doraville, Ga., and other shops that offer immigrants a little glimpse of home.

Metro Atlanta has a handful of Korean-language video-rental shops, plus two dozen other ethnic businesses that specialize in video series.

"We recognize the actors immediately. We recognize the locations… . I remember the old memories," said India native Raon Kommamuri, 34, a programmer in Atlanta. "They cheer me up."

The burgeoning import industry means thousands of immigrants from Mexico, Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan and other nations are shunning prime-time television, cable networks and Blockbuster videos, and instead popping in digital video discs with actors who speak their tongues and have cheekbones like their own.

Ethnic video also means profit lots of it. Imported entertainment products reached a record high last year. Enlivening, educational and at times cheesy, imported media products recordings, videos and DVDs nearly doubled from $755 million in 1994 to $1.25 billion in 1999, federal commerce figures show. Asian merchandise amounted to $441 million, compared with $62.8 million worth of goods from Latin American countries, according to 1999 statistics.

The numbers reveal something much more emotional.

"People miss back home," said Jun Soo Lee, 46, the owner of Video Town, who opened his shop four years ago and even carries week-old evening news from Seoul. "Some people, especially old folks, wait outside for the store to open on the days when new releases arrive. They live for that."

From a cultural standpoint, the imported videos have a significant purpose.

"What these cultural items are doing is preserving and sustaining their cultural traditions," said Howard Aldrich, an immigration labor specialist and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Americans annually spend $8 billion on video rentals. Why shouldn't homesick immigrants do the same?

Some immigrants would sacrifice a few hours of sleep to watch their own movie stars, not Calista Flockhart, Denzel Washington or other domestic celebrities.

Just ask 17-year-old Crystal Nguyen, who last week left a Vietnamese video shop with 10 videotapes, including "Unreachable Zone of Darkness," a drama about the corporate world.

"This is better than TV. It's more interesting because it's my language. I can understand my language," said the high school junior, originally from Vietnam, who devotes an average of two hours a day to Hong Kong dramas.

Latinos, especially Mexicans, share the same sentiment. Hundreds of them seek Video Mundo, a six-store rental chain in Atlanta with Mexican- and Spanish-subtitled American films as well as salsa, merengue and other Latin music compact discs. Even the mainstream Hollywood Video carries an "Espanol" section.

Taj Video in Atlanta attracts Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and other South Asian customers, as well as Americans yearning for different cinematic flavors. There, expect to find DVDs with English subtitles, plus 3,000 movies about romance forbidden by the caste system, dramas with actors suddenly breaking into song and recent hits produced in "Bollywood," an affectionate nickname for the Indian film industry centered in Bombay.

So what if language is an obstacle, says Cyrus Gorham, 26, confessing his cinematic admiration.

He already owns 25 DVDs, which costs $12 to $23 each, and examines Taj's new-release section every week with his friend, Brian Neulieb, 25, who fell in love with Indian cinema while traveling in the Netherlands. Neither of them is Indian and neither speaks Hindi, the official "Bollywood" language.

"When I started watching, there were no subtitles, but the movie was crafted so well it didn't matter whether you understood Hindi or not," said Mr. Gorham, a bookseller from New Haven, Conn.

He now shuns most American films to feast on foreign flicks: "The last time I went to a theater was to see 'Good Will Hunting.' "

For a taste of "Bollywood," consider the plot of "Fiza," which stars South Asian heartthrob Hrithik Roshan and tells a story of a girl in search of her brother who vanished in the Hindu-Muslim riots eight years ago.

At India A-1 Grocery in Arlington, Va., the most popular Hindi-language video is "Mohabbateim," a love story, says manager Justus Mohan. His store carries videos in four Indian languages.

Asian-film distributors exist mostly on the West Coast. Tai Seng Video Marketing, for example, buys videotapes predominantly from Hong Kong, adds subtitles and sells them to domestic mega-chains and mom-and-pop businesses.

The rising demand for imported recordings has created a lively market for pirated or illegally dubbed versions and hurt the legitimate businesses, which legally buy copyrights, distributors complain.

"It's a growing problem," said John Soo, marketing manager of Tai Seng, the largest distributor of Asian videotapes, based in South San Francisco. "It's affecting the sales of major studios and affecting the sales of our products."

Little government oversight of retailers invites organized greed. A few years ago, the Federal Trade Commission accused Korean video-rental shops in the Washington area of price fixing by simultaneously raising rental prices from $1 to $1.50. The 16 owners were not fined, but signed an agreement promising not to fix prices again and to pay up to a $10,000 penalty if they violate the agreement in the future.

While Atlanta's video market may not rival the West Coast in size, it is vital to immigrants throughout the region.

In metro Atlanta, a tape containing two drama episodes or a movie costs from $1 to $3, with the Korean shops requesting a $20 deposit. No late fee is levied, and tapes are due in a week, two weeks or even a month, because merchants fear losing patrons to competitors.

That's good news to Chau Nguyen, 36, a computer information system student at Georgia State University.

"If you go to Blockbuster, it's expensive," Mr. Nguyen said. "You have to return it on an exact date. Sometimes, I'm too busy. Here, I don't have to."

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